A few weeks ago I went to Jerusalem. It wasn’t a pilgrimage, exactly. I went to see friends. But, I thought I’d see some of the sites while I was there. It’s Jerusalem, after all. On my first day, I walked to the Old City, through the Christian Quarter, picked up the Via Dolorosa, and hit the main Christian sites. I made sure, though, to keep clear of the hoards of Christian tourists who had been bussed in earlier. “I am not like that,” I thought. And, in retrospect, I may have mocked them a little. I am a visitor, after all, not a tourist. Except that, on that day, I was a tourist. But, I digress.
The next morning, after something of a lie-in, I headed to the Lion’s Gate which was where I would find the birthplace of Mary. Yes! That Mary. I knew I couldn’t leave Jerusalem without seeing that, and for some reason, it hadn’t been on my self-guided tour the day before.
I didn’t know where the Lion’s Gate was, so I got a taxi. “I take you Western Wall,” the driver said. “Well, actually, I’d like to go to the Lion’s Gate,” I said… and we repeated this conversation several times. Finally, I decided to just let him take me wherever he wanted to and I’d figure it out from there. Sure enough, he took me to the Western Wall, which is not near the Lion’s Gate, and he charged me a few shekels more than I thought he should have too. I don’t really mind one or the other, either being over-charged a little or winding up at the wrong place. It happens. But, both?
So, I own it, I was in a something of a foul mood as I approached the holiest site on the planet. I had been surprised at how unpleasant and imperialistic the Israelis were compared to the much more affable and welcoming Jordanians just across the border. Of course, it had been an Israeli taxi driver who, disregarding my request, had decided where I should go that morning. I didn’t want anything to do with their wall. I had one objective and that was to see the birthplace of Mary. Determined, I went up to the information desk and asked for directions to the Lion’s Gate. The lady there told me how to get there and off I went with a spring in my step. But after awhile, I was back at the Western Wall. So, I asked for directions again. Again, after marching around the Old City for better than an hour, I was back at the Western Wall. The same thing happened a third time. The sun was getting high in the sky when I gave up and deliberately walked in the opposite direction, away from the wall.
Of course, that is when my adventure began and I saw all kinds of cool stuff, including the room where the last supper was held. Or, so they said. I was pretty amazed by it all. And I met lots of interesting people along the way. Around mid-afternoon, the sun blazing by now, I slipped into what looked like a garden and discovered a little church. The nuns who had been cleaning it said that I was welcome to go in and sit for a while and I did. I gulped down the rest of my water, wiped my brow, and looked around. It was a pretty little church, though I can’t tell you anything else about it. But in the quiet, and cool, of that small sanctuary, I realized that I was one of the millions of people who had climbed that mountain for one reason or another. Of course, Jesus himself had come here for festivals. He must have gotten lost a time or two, stopped to talk to strangers, he probably got tired and stopped to rest just as I had. All the pilgrims would have. And I thought of all those Psalms of Ascents, prayers recited as one ascended to the temple. One of the Psalms appointed to today is a Psalm of Ascent.
The very first words are, “Unto you I lift up my eyes,” because the Temple, where God lived, was up… up on the mountain. The people who recited, or sang, this Psalm were going up, they were looking up, God was up there in the Temple. There’s an optimism about it. God was up there, and they were going up there to be with God. By the time they would have started singing this song, they would have been assured of making the pilgrimage safely. It might have been a long journey, but the destination was in sight.
The next thing they say is that God is their only source, the only supplier of their needs. “As the servant looks to the master, and the maid to the mistress, so do we wait for God.” Servants and maids didn’t have sources of outside income, there was nobody else to meet their needs. They were utterly dependent on their masters. This verse is not a statement about slaves and owners, though that’s there. It’s more about dependency. A good master, after all, took care of his servants. You could look to your master’s hand in confidence that he would provide.
But, all that optimism and confidence was just for the first two verses. In the middle of this short chapter, there is a twist. We are about to hear something quite different in the next two verses.
All was not well for our troubadours! Twice they asked for mercy, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy upon us…” They said, “We are rab saba…full up, right up to HERE (drag index finger across forehead)… of the mocking we get.” Why this change of tone? There’s a hint in Nehemiah where the writer talks about the scorn, or the mocking, that people experienced when they tried to rebuild the Temple after the exile. They’d been ridiculed and insulted. The Jews even prayed about it, asking God not to overlook it, but to give them what they deserved for insulting the Jews. And, in Psalm 123:3 they are praying about it again, “We are completely overwhelmed with the scorn, the mockery, of those who take it easy, the proud.”
Of course, if you’ve watched the news on any of the past 534 days you have seen our president engage in some sort of mocking. On any given day it might be immigrants, Muslims, journalists, people of color, war heroes, other world leaders, women, the differently-abled, native Americans, entire countries, or Elizabeth Warren. The man is a mocker. But, you know what? That’s too easy. When we use scripture to make note of the sins of others, there’s a pretty good chance we’ve missed something. So, let’s take a closer look at mocking.
Most English-language translations use words like “contempt,” or “scorn” when translating this chapter. That is because in English, “mocking” has a narrower meaning. But, “mocking” is really a better translation. The writer of The Sefer Ha-Middot, or The Ways of The Tzaddikim, a middle-ages book of ethical teachings, tells us that there are five kinds of mocking in the Tanakh. The anonymous writer says that the kind of mocking we read about today is the one in which the mocker… “mocks others because he despises them for not having succeeded as he did in the acquisition of wealth and honor. He despises the poor, not in that he imputes any imprecations to them, but in that they are despicable in his eyes.” In other words, he looks down on them. He believes himself to be better. And, that still sounds pretty political, doesn’t it?
We should probably take a look at the other four ways that mocking is done in the Tanach then.
The first kind of mocking, the writer says, is willfully causing harm to another out of malice. As an example he gives Psalm 50:20, “You sit around and slander your brother–your own mother’s son.” It’s sort of a family affair, and by “family” I mean those in our own circles of influence. It might not be your biological brother, maybe it’s someone who serves on a committee with you, or a neighbor, or just someone whose character might be impugned in order to make your own case seem stronger. If your opponent is compromised in one area, after all, he might not be reliable in other areas either. “Yes,” we might say off-handedly, “That one who disagrees with me… you know, he cheats at cards.” Not that it’s OK to cheat at cards, but what does it have to do with the thing you disagree about? Nothing. But, it may help your own cause to malign your “brother.”
Uh-Oh, we’re not talking politics anymore are we? (Unless, it’s church politics.) This is the kind of mocking we might all be guilty of.
Another kind of mocking, says the writer, is that which mocks things and activities rather than people. The mocker doesn’t intend to mock those people associated, it’s just the thing itself, same-sex marriage, for example. This kind of mocker is so wise in his own eyes that he cannot accept any new idea that was not his own. This is the kind of mockery talked about in Proverbs 26:12, “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” (NIV) And Proverbs 9:8 offers some advice on how to deal with a person like that, “So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you…” (NLT) But, isn’t it easy to bethis kind of mocker? After all, it doesn’t involve mocking actual people, just the things they might want to do. Think about the things you are against: Women in ministry, divestment, marriage equality, prayer book revision… whatever it is. Maybe some small part of you wishes you’d thought of it. And, really, if you don’t want to be part of it, why not let somebody else try it? The writer of The Sefer Ha-Middotsays that this kind of mocking is most likely to lead to heresy. Why risk it?
Another kind of mocking is found in the clever comeback, the snark, being the one who “wins the internet” with an underhanded, but clever, rejoinder. Your friends may laugh, but the writer of The Sefer Ha-Middot doesn’t think it’s very funny. He says that there are two sins, not just one, in this kind of mocking. First, it multiplies words. Second, if you are doing this kind of mocking, or any kind of mocking, you are not studying Torah! In other words: study more, talk less.
Finally, there is the kind of mocking you do when you’re drunk. The writer uses Proverbs 20:1 as an example of this, “It isn’t smart to get drunk! Drinking makes a fool of you and leads to fights” (CEV). The writer goes on to say that you don’t really have to be drunk with wine to do this kind of mocking, but there’s a frivolity to it and the wine, or Maker’s Mark, just helps things along.
I am not here to point any fingers. What I will say is that I found more than just a presidential mocker in these verses. I also found myself. Who knows? Maybe you’re in there too.
In these days when it seems so easy to see the sins of others, it’s important to remember that we are not so innocent ourselves. All us righteous snowflakes have done the same things, maybe worse. Remember, you can’t fight fire with fire, you can’t fight politics with politics, and you can’t fight mockery with more mockery. To have the victory that overcomes the world we fight with love.
Have you been mocked lately? Sure, we all feel the contempt of this president, and maybe of those who would deny us certain rights/rites, or who refuse to hear what they’ve been told about abuse in the church, or who just won’t entertain any new language for the prayer book. It’s contempt. It’s mockery. The question, though, is not how do we win. The question to ask is how do we love? Can we wait in confidence for mercy? Can we keep singing as we march uphill?
As for my trip to Jerusalem, I finally visited the wall. It surely is the holiest place I’ve ever been. And I found the birthplace of Mary. The day did not go as I’d planned, but when I stopped my mocking… stopped demanding my own way and started loving the world… is when I stopped being a tourist and became a pilgrim. We are not put on this earth to be tourists. This is a pilgrim journey. There are hills to climb, long trips to make, ego to be overcome. Oh, and Psalms to be sung.
Linda McMillan writes from Amman, Jordan. She is a homeless nomad, always looking for the next adventure and home.
Image: Ancient Pilgrim’s Tattoo, inked by Waseem Razzouk of Razzouk Tattoos.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Nehemiah 2:17-20… Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
Nehemiah 4:1-3… When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
Nehemiah 4:4… Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of[b] the builders.
You can see how long Present Trump has been in office here.
You can get a copy of The Ways of The Tziddikim, a new and thoroughly modern edition, by Gabriel Zaloshinsky (Editor), and Shraga Silverstein (Translator) here. It is not available for Kindle, and I do not have my copy with me. My lifestyle means that all my books are on Kindle. What I have written here is taken from notes I made a long time ago, I wouldn’t even try to guess when. I have tried to be as true to the text as possible. Or, at least true to my notes. I hope I haven’t plagiarized, though that is a possibility. Though placed between the hard rocks of plagiarism and thievery, I chose possible plagiarism, for if you have some knowledge and fail to teach it, you have stolen. Get your own copy of the book, it’s really worth having, and let me know how I did.