Psalm 36: On The Divided Soul
This week’s portion, Toldot, opens with the prenatal origins of the struggle between Jacob and Esau, or Israel and Edom—Esau being treated in the Midrash as a kind of archetype of evil, and specifically the arch-enemy of the Jewish people (Rome, the medieval Christian Church, etc.). This was no doubt the image that inspired the selection of Psalm 36 as the reading for this portion.
The title, la-Menatzeah le-eved ha-Shem le-David, “For the Choirmaster, for the servant of God, [a psalm] of David,” is interesting: the middle phrase perhaps suggests that the psalm will tell how to become a true servant of God, a process which evidently requires one to undergo a certain confrontation with evil. The opening verse, ne’um pesha la-rasha bekerev libi, “transgression speaks to evil within my soul,” suggests a divided consciousness. While there are those who suggest that the psalmist is observing this process from the side, it is more likely that it represents an inner struggle. “Transgression” is personified as an autonomous being, addressing what the Sages would call the Yetzer hara, that component within every person which responds to evil. Whom among us has not experienced, at one point or another in life, a situation in which the thought of performing some immoral act pops into our head, to which a voice inside us immediately responds: “What a great idea!” “I’d like to do that!” This voice is that of the “little rasha” inside us that is tempted by the apparent sweetness of evildoing, by the immediate benefit or pleasure to be derived from that act. Hopefully, if we are moral people, there is a little tzaddik inside us as well who immediately vetoes it; or there may be a protracted inner struggle; or we may in fact succumb.
The psalmist continues by describing how “transgression,” i.e., the personification of the will to evil in the world, invents smooth, persuasive arguments by which to convince people to do its biding: “he flatters himself [or: talks smoothly] in his eyes,” using words of deceit and mischief. Wickedness takes over all his thoughts, becomes the center of his whole existence, to the point that he even plots how to do evil while lying in bed at night.
Verse 4 uses an interesting phrase: hadal lehaskil leheitiv, which may be translated “he has ceased to act wisely [or: to understand] and to do good.” Does this phrase, which uses two separate verbs—lehaskil, “to understand” or “consider,” referring to an activity of the mind; and leheitiv, “to do good,” i.e., a moral act—refer to two distinct, independent realms, or are the two interrelated? This relates to an important question in philosophy: namely, does the application of the intellect automatically bring a person to knowledge of the good, or is the intellect morally neutral?
The tendency in the modern world is to see the mind as a morally neutral organ. It may be used for analyzing problems, “processing” information, and achieving practical goals—but alienated from any “values.” A well-known anecdote tells of a prominent professor of ethics who was notorious for his immoral behavior. He was berated by one of his colleagues: “How can you, an expert on ethics, a trailblazer in ethical theory, behave in such blatantly unethical fashion?” His retort was, “Is a professor of mathematics expected to be a triangle?”
Indeed, our experience clearly shows that practical or applied intelligence can certainly be used for evil. The Nazi killing machine, with its well-designed, efficient functioning, reflecting the application of much thought, is only the most strident example of this. Almost every mystery novel or movie features the clever criminal who uses his mind to outwit the police, leaving no trace and having a fool-proof alibi (although there’s always some small slip up which betrays him); or, on another level, the extramarital lovers who invest great cunning and intelligence in planning their trysts so as to cover their tracks.
But the biblical view, as expressed, for example, in Kohelet, Proverbs and Psalms, is that evil is ultimately related to foolishness. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’“ [Ps 14:1]—that is, atheism is an in some sense a failure, not only of faith, but of the intellect; a failure to see what ought to be obvious to any clear-headed person (the ultimate foolishness of the wicked man is in believing that he can get away with his wrongdoing; that “there is no judge and no judgment”). Or there is the notion expressed by the Sages that “A person does not sin unless there enters him a spirit of foolishness.” The human mind, left to its own devices, will reach the way of God; or, perhaps equally important, will intuitively arrive at basic moral and ethical principles. This is in turn related to the assumption, which I believe to be implicit in the concept of the Noachide law, that there is a universal moral law that is innate or inborn within the human soul or mind (see our discussion of this in HY V: Noah).
Certainly, the very idea of a discipline of moral philosophy, whether in the ancient world or among post-Enlightenment thinkers, is based on the premise that man can discover the good and the true through thought. On another level, we have the notion, in classical antiquity, of Wisdom (Sophia /Hokhmah) as a Divine efflux, as the foremost emanation or apotheosis of the Divine within our world.
Interestingly, R. Judah Halevi, in the Kuzari, posits a separate, distinct faculty enabling man, and specifically the Jew, to arrive at knowledge of the divine: inyan haelohi, the “Divine matter” or “faculty,” what might be called a talent for godliness religion. This faculty is outside of the regular definition of intelligence. Indeed, Halevi was skeptical of the efficacy of logical proofs, or of philosophy generally, in bringing human beings to knowledge of either the good or the true. It was this skepticism that led him to the conviction that it is only by means of revelation, and the related phenomenon of prophecy, that man may know with certitude the path in which he must walk.
Returning to our psalm: after painting in clear colors the way of the evil man, there is a pair of verses celebrating the ineffability of God’s attributes: “O Lord, Your lovingkindness extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the skies; Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, Your judgments a great depth—Man and beast you save, O Lord” (vv. 6-7). Are these images, all of which portray the infinite dimensions, the overwhelming and sublime nature of God’s qualities, meant to provide assurance of Divine goodness, or do they suggest His great distance from human affairs (perhaps in response to human wickedness?)? Both readings have been suggested.
The final part of the psalm—“how precious is Your steadfast love…” (vv. 7-10), expresses a sense of being inundated with Divine kindness and grace. Here God’s love is no longer a great mountain or deep abyss, but like that of a protective mother bird or a stream flowing with abundance and delight. The psalmist ends with a brief prayer that he protected from the “foot” and “hand” of the evildoers.