1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Reading Psalm 1 reminded me of a story by Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou:
Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee. Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”
Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. I find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye.
“I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until the meat falls apart.”
Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”
In its emphasis on “the Way to nurture life,” the story stands in stark contrast to that of the United States in the Fall of 2020. As we are hurtling toward the presidential election, our society is deeply divided, and the divisions often cut right through families. More than 200,000 people have died in the US from COVID-19 (over 1 million worldwide). Masks are commonplace, yet many people refuse to wear them; social distancing is the norm, yet many ridicule those who follow it. When President Trump contracted the illness, he was greeted by some with anger at his lack of leadership and by others with compassion and praise.
Pope Francis, in his newest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, talks about the consequences of being divided:
“The parable [of the Good Samaritan] begins with the robbers. Jesus chose to start when the robbery has already taken place, lest we dwell on the crime itself or the thieves who committed it. Yet we know them well. We have seen, descending on our world, the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests of power, gain and division. The real question is this: will we abandon the injured man and run to take refuge from the violence, or will we pursue the thieves? Will the wounded man end up being the justification for our irreconcilable divisions, our cruel indifference?”
How could Psalm 1 show us a way out? It’s a “wisdom psalm” that seems to function as an introduction for the whole Psalter. The psalm consists of two sections contrasting the righteous (verses 1-3) with the wicked (verses 4-5), followed by a summarizing coda (verse 6). In its center we find the first metaphor of the Psalter: a majestic tree planted near a mighty stream. As the person in our psalm “meditates” on God’s instruction (torah) day and night, striving to comprehend it and to live it, she becomes that very tree that greens and blossoms and grows.
Yolanda Norton reminds us that the Hebrew word rendered “meditate” by the NRSV has a much more active meaning than that word: “reading hgh as plotting, moaning, and speaking suggests that rather than passive reception of God’s word, our call is to act meaningfully and intentionally towards God’s guidance. In this context, our relationship with torah or instruction should be to read, question, discuss, engage the text in ways that impact our daily living.”
Much like the Taoist teaching story, Psalm 1 seeks to show us the right way, the Way of God.
Rolf Jacobson writes, “Psalm 1 bears witness to the belief that the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction. Psalm 1 sees hope in a different path, the path defined by God’s instruction”. As the “wicked” insist on finding their own way, they separate themselves from the way of God, and get lost on their own roads, like chaff that the wind drives away (verse 4).
Buddhists remind us that our thoughts won’t last, that our bodies constantly change and that our memories are notoriously unreliable. They also teach that the things people hold onto (their good name, their cars, their bank accounts) do not last. The “happy” (or “blessed” or “righteous”) one does not identify with anything material, nor with thoughts, nor with emotions. Rather than finding her own separate way, she becomes one with the way of God … and flourishes.
It seems as though the Taoist story and Psalm 1 complement each other; even though one counsels “going with the flow” and the other suggests active engagement, what unites the two is their trust in the Way of God.
Looking for the essence of torah, this portion from Psalm 82 might be a good place to start: 2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? 3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” If we commit to “plotting, moaning, and speaking” those words, we will find that “the flow” of the Way of God demands that we give voice to those who have no voice.
Even though it seemed logical to mention the failure of the current White House, I hesitated because of the President’s recent positive diagnosis. However, a recent article by Rev. William Barber, showed how we can recognize their failures while not reveling in his pain. Mr. Trump and his administration deserve our compassion, but they also deserve to be called out for having abandoned “the weak and the orphan … the lowly and the destitute.”
These difficult times require clear-headed thinking and wise actions that lead to a more wholesome society. The Taoist story and Psalm 1 invite us to let go of our own roads and to engage in the way of God. As Jesus might say, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:23).