Friday, December 23, 2005

Hanukkah (Psalms)

Psalm 30: A Psalm, a song for the Dedication of the House. For David

Psalm 30 is associated with Hanukkah for the obvious reason of its heading: A Psalm, a song for the Dedication of the House. For David.” Yet, at least at first glance, there seems to be no obvious connection between its contents and this commemorative occasion. Nor is the connection between David and the dedication of the House (Temple) at all clear. After all, it was Solomon who built and dedicated the Temple—and who in fact uttered a lengthy prayer, or rather series of praises and prayer, on that occasion (see I Kings 8:12-61). The Bible also contains prayers related to the rebuilding of the Temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Several years ago I discussed Psalm 30 in these pages in a different context; namely, as the psalm which serves as a kind of introduction or entrée to Pesukei de-Zimra, in an attempt to figure out another puzzle: what a psalm of prayer and petition is doing at that particular point in the liturgy, immediately prior to a series of songs of praise and lauding and extolling of God.

I wrote then, among other things, that this psalm is interesting for its portrayal of a certain psychological transition undergone by its author. It begins by describing a certain crisis in his life: he was deathly ill, he cried out to God, and was “lifted up from Sheol.” He then recalls how he used to feel, before the crisis: he enjoyed an exaggerated sense of trust and security, ”I said in my contentment, I shall never be moved” (v. 7). But suddenly, troubles came along and swept him away; he realizes that God has hidden His face from him, and he discovers the need for prayer, and that he has no alternative but to turn to God in his time of distress. He thus moves from a stage of exaggerated self-confidence, in which he had ignored man’s ultimate dependence upon God; through a period of hester panim, of distress, of fear, of knowing his own helplessness, related to distance from God; and finally, to the knowledge, by contrast, of God’s redeeming help. The psalm ends in dance and song, when the author is convinced that true joy is to be found in God.

I suggested that this psalm may be read as an introduction, not only to Pesukei de-Zimra, but to the entire process of prayer. It serves as a reminder that, prior to the stage of service of love, expressed in ecstatic psalms of praise to God, each one of us begins from a stage of anxiety, angst, of discovering man’s essential dependence, need and creatureliness.

Moreover, it seemed to me that the contrast here between self-confidence and serendipity, and dependence on God and gratefulness for His salvation, speaks in a unique way to contemporary culture. The modern milieu seems to have lost the tragic sense of life. People today talk about “having it all”—of enjoying material wealth, professional success, health, good “personal relationships”—and somehow feel cheated when things don’t quite work out they way think they have a right to expect. Not infrequently, one encounters people who seem to have been spared serious troubles through much of their life—whether because they were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth, or whether, through a combination of innate talent and intelligence, charm, good looks, and old-fashioned hard work and discipline, have enjoyed success in school and in their profession, coming to feel that the world is their oyster. When such people suddenly encounter a situation they cannot control or master, they find themselves at a total loss as to where to turn.

One is reminded by this of Rashi’s remark at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev (Gen 37:2), quoting Genesis Rabbah 84.3. Yaakov, old and tired from the travail of his life—the conflicts with his violent brother Esau, with his scheming and dishonest father-in-law Lavan, the problems of navigating a polygamous household, and the incident in Shechem with Dinah at which his hot-headed sons slaughter the whole town to avenge their sister’s “honor.” After all this, he simply wanted to rest and to enjoy his “retirement” in peace and quiet of retirement—when suddenly the trouble between Joseph and the other brothers landed upon him. For this ordinary human wish, he is told (by God or by Satan, according to variant readings) that “Isn’t it enough for you that [reward] which is prepared for the righteous in the next world, that you also seek contentment in this life?” The Midrash applies to his situation the words of Job 3:26: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest: but trouble comes."

Every time I read this passage, I am puzzled by it anew. Is the demand imposed upon us by the Torah so radical? Does Judaism really consider the ordinary, innocent human wish for a bit of peace and quiet as somehow wrong? The message conveyed here is not the rejection of luxuries or physical comforts per se, the old kibbutz ideal of “sufficing with but little,” not to mention more intense asceticism. We are not expected to wear a hairshirt, so to speak. Rather, it is that being religious, having faith in God, means being able to accept a life of radical insecurity, even to accept it with love. Too much planning, too much acting as if we were in charge of our own lives and can really fix things with certainty, somehow or other implies a lessening of the “throwing of your yoke” upon God. To be alive means to know that one is, so to speak, constantly standing on a narrow bridge, and that at any moment the unexpected may befall us—“and the important thing,” as the old Mussar niggun says, “is not to fear at all,” because we have a ground trust in God.

This discussion returns us to two of the “types of Jewish piety” in Scholem’s paper, mentioned here last week (the third type, the talmid hakham, the scholar, is not pertinent here). The one, the Tzaddik (I stress: the word is used here in the pre-Hasidic sense), is the “normative Jew.” He accepts the bourgeois ideal, and wants the same basic things that most people want in life: to provide for his family’s needs, to have a pleasant home to live in and to fill it with nice things, to give his children a “good start” in life, and to have enough left over to assure a comfortable and secure old age—but the underlying framework is that of Jewish tradition: of kashrut, and of the daily, weekly, and annual round of prayer, holy days, and celebration. By contrast, the Hasid, the “radical Jew,” sees the focus of his life as Avodat hashem, however this may be defined in terms of the combination of the three pillars of scholarly, devotional and charitable/inter-personal endeavors (Torah, avodah, gemilut hasadim). Material needs and security are important to him (her) only in an instrumental way, as providing the infrastructure, so to speak, the “ground camp,” for these all-important and all-consuming life activities. He accepts the basic insecurity of all human life as a given, so that whatever catastrophe may overtake him—medical, financial, marital, or even political upheaval—he accepts it with equanimity, having long since understood that such things are a natural, expected part of life. Whether or not this demand is extreme, fanatical, at all possible, I leave to the reader’s judgment.

Interestingly: virtually every other major religion, with the possible exception of Islam, has a ”monastic track” for those individuals who wish to devote themselves entirely to the religious life. Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism all have options for leaving the world, including family life, and devoting oneself to a life of poverty, self-abnegation, and pietism. In Hinduism, interestingly, this is seen as a natural progression, a stage of life that follows that of the householder; after having fulfilled one’s duties to family, one becomes a monk in old age. In Judaism, marriage and family are seen as the proper framework for holiness (based, inter alia, on a realistic assessment of the role of sexuality, channeling rather than denying this powerful force). Hence, even the Hasid, as defined above, lives within a family. Nevertheless, in terms of the inner psychology or mentality—i.e., the focus of life being wholly on God and avodah—it is not that dissimilar from monasticism.

It would be interesting, in this light, to examine various groups during the history of Judaism that sought to create communities based upon the desire for a more intense, uncompromising type of spiritual life: beginning with the Judaean Desert sects that created the Dead Sea Scrolls (albeit it is not clear whether they married at all, or were in fact celibate monastics); through the Haverim of Second Temple and post-Destruction times, who undertook a series of halakhic norms that distinguished their fellows from the masses of the people; down to such medieval communities or orders as the mystical circle of the Raya Mehemna described by Baer, Ashkenazic Hasidism, the circle of the Ari in Safed, and certain Polish Hasidic groups, whether the original circle of the Besht and his disciples, or such groups as Psyshcha or Kotzk, which made great demands of their members. These models have fired the imagination of Jews in our own day who have sought to revive a new kind of Jewish spiritual life. Hillel Zeitlin wrote a manifesto calling for such a group in pre-war Warsaw; in more secular terms, the early kibbutzim and kvutzot expected a spiritual commitment of its members, and at least some of the thinkers associated with them were as much interested in the creation of a new type of fellowship as they were in the pragmatic task of settling the land (see, e.g, A. D. Gordon, Buber, etc.). A similar idea inspired some of the movements for Jewish renewal in America in more recent times: the earliest havurot, Zalman Schachter’s B’nei/P’nei Ohr, even Shlomo Carlebach’s “holy beggars.”

What has all this to do with Hanukkah? As Amos Hakham notes, the various “personal” psalms only rarely specify the precise nature of the trouble and needs because of which the author is beseeching God. This fact makes them far more universal, and suitable for use by any person in distress, who can think of his particular problem while praying them. Moreover, even a psalm phrased in the first-person singular can in fact be used or understood as being uttered by or about the Jewish people as a whole. Thus, Psalm 30 can be read, among other things, as referring to the distress of the Jewish people during the period of Seleucid suppression of Jewish observance that triggered the Hasmonean rebellion—a theme thoroughly appropriate to Hanukkah. True, there is no reference in this psalm to the element of human initiative that was so central to the Hanukkah story (and which, by the way, lends itself to a secular, nationalist interpretation), but one might argue that this is seen by the author as self-evident and understood. The important thing was that, in tandem with the human effort, the Hasmoneans saw themselves as dependent upon God, and as renewing the ritual in His Temple with His help, so to speak.

To this, it seems to me, one may add two things: First, that the phrase, “sing unto the Lord his pious ones” (v. 5) is appropriate to Hanukkah, because the term hasidim was specifically used to refer to the Hasmonean as against the Hellenizers. Second, and more important: Hanukkah is, so to speak, the last holiday of the biblical period and the first of Rabbinic Judaism. The entire complex of attitudes described above: of faith and trust in God; of devotion to His service; of waging a war, not for material interests, but to protect and restore such religious values as Shabbat, circumcision, the autonomy of the Jewish calendar, and the purity of the Temple service—are in concert with the attitude of devotion to God, understanding and acceptance of the radical insecurity of human life, and the role of avodah in the life of the individual that this implies.

Hallel: Psalm 114

In addition to Psalm 30, Hanukkah is marked by the recital of Hallel—the group of six psalms of thanksgiving, Chapters 113 to 118, recited on all festive occasions. Indeed, according to Rambam, Hanukkah is in a certain sense that occasion that most exemplifies its recitation. In addition to lighting candles in the evening, the recitation of Hallel and the thanking of God for the miracles in the context of Al ha-Nissim are the central mitzvot of Hanukkah.

The first psalm of the Hallel, Psalm 113, is a gem. In beautiful, concise imagery, it expresses the two essential aspects of God: His universal rule or sovereignty, and His loving Providence. It opens with an invocation to “all the servants of the Lord” to praise Him “from now and forever more… from the rising of the sun till its setting” (vv. 1-3). Nothing can be compared to the grandeur and majesty of God, who is “uplifted above all nations… dwells on high” (vv. 4-5). But in the very next word, His involvement in human life, His benevolent caring for the poor and downtrodden, is expressed in the image, “He goes down low to look at heaven and earth” (v. 6). Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed, speaks of imagery of ascent and height as expressing God’s majesty, His transcendent, ineffable Being as He is; while His descent signifies those actions in the world through which He is known to man. Or, more simply, His transcendence and immanence, the two basic attitudes or positions of God vis-a-vis the world. “He raises the poor man up from the dust, the indigent from the ash heap” (v. 7). He turns about the life situation of all those that are in need (and the contrary as well: He also brings down the haughty and arrogant, as pointed out in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam 2:6-8).

The final verse is often misunderstood:

מושיבי עקרת הבית, אם הבנים שמחנה: הללויה.

It is often mistakenly thought that the two phrases are parallel: “he restores the mistress of the house, he rejoices the mother of sons.” In modern Hebrew the phrase akeret habayit is conventionally used to refer to the housewife or “mistress of the house”; but in fact, akeret habayit is the woman who is barren, uprooted, homeless, and is transformed into “a happy mother of sons.” Semeihah here is not a causative verb (to say that God rejoices the mother of sons, the reading would be mesameah), but an adjective: she becomes a happy mother of sons.

I would like to suggest that this psalm contains in itself the quintessential message of Hallel. Hence, according to Beit Shammai (in m. Pesahim 10.6), it suffices to recite this one psalm alone on Passover night in that part of Hallel that is recited / connected with the Haggadah proper.


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