Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayeshev (Psalms)

Psalm 112: Who is the Good Man?

Psalms 111 and 112, which is suggested as the psalm for this week’s parsha, form a complementary pair. Both are arranged in alphabetical order based on half-verses, which triple up in the last two verses of each; there are numerous similarities in language; the final verse of the one, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” leads quite naturally into “Happy is the man who fears the Lord…” of the other. Most important, the subject matter is, in a sense, complementary: the one praises God (“I shall thank the Lord with all my heart”), while the other draws a portrait of the good man, the one who “fears God,” and the blessing he may anticipate in life.

Amos Hakham suggests that the two may have been composed for use at one liturgical occasion: praising God and invoking blessing upon the God-fearing man are in a sense two sides of the same coin. And indeed, in some communities it is customary to recite the two together on Shabbat afternoon, immediately after the Torah reading at Minhah. On the other hand, Midrash Shohar Tov draws a parallel to Eshet Hayyil, (Proverbs 31:10-31), which it calls “the hymn of the God-fearing woman,” identifying the two with Abraham and Sarah. And, in a more doleful vein, Psalm 112 and Proverbs 31 are popular as funeral readings for members of the respective sexes.

I would draw a parallel to two other psalms. Psalm 128, a short gem of a psalm, opens with a very similar phrase: “Happy are all those that fear the Lord, that walk in His ways,” and goes on to praise the value of labor (When you eat the fruit of the toil of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be well with you”), and shows him surrounded by his family: his wife like a fertile vine, and his sons like olive trees. Psalm 15, which deals in greater depth with the virtues of the good man, is cited in the well-known passage at the end of Makkot (24a) which, after stating that Moses received 613 commandments, continues that “David reduced them eleven,” referring to the essential moral virtues capsulated in that psalm. What is the connection between Psalm 112 and our parsha? At the end of Vayishlah the curtain goes down, so to speak, on Jacob as an active player, and rises on Joseph and his brothers as the center of action. From this point on (if not earlier; e.g., in the incident of Dinah and Shechem), Jacob seems like an elderly man, cautious, worried, largely bereft of the daring and initiative and ingenuity that marked his earlier years, living through his children and grandchildren, reacting to events rather than actively making them. Indeed, Rashi on the first verse of our Torah portion portrays Jacob as “wishing to dwell in peace,” only to find the calm of his retirement, so to speak, being disturbed by the “fury of Joseph and his brothers.” Hence, the reading of Psalm 112 on this Shabbat may be seen as a kind of summing up of Jacob’s life, as a certain model of the y’rei hashem, the God-fearing individual.

To return to our psalm itself: the God-fearing man is seen as loving and talking pleasure in the mitzvot themselves, and not in their reward. He is characterized by honesty, integrity, and compassion, conducting his affairs in a wise and balanced way. He lends money to the needy without taking interest, and even gives it (“scatters”) to them outright. He is a source of light to all around him. He will enjoy a reward in this world: his children will be outstanding, respected leaders in the community (“mighty in the land… a generation of the upright”), and he himself will be a solid, prosperous citizen (“wealth and riches are in his house”), his worldly success being viewed as a sign of his piety and being beloved of the Lord. In this sense, there is something almost Calvinistic in this picture, as if rooted in a sense that Divine Providence and recompense are acted out in this world.

Long-time readers may remember our discussion last year, in connection with Rambam’s Hilkhot Deot (see HY V: Tazria), of Scholem’s essay “Three Types of Jewish Piety.” He spoke there of three ideal types: the talmid hakham (scholar); the hasid (neither “saint” nor “pietist” is an adequate translation; this type is the radical, extreme Jew who is single-minded in his devotion to one thing); and the tzaddik, the normative, righteous man who fulfills his duty towards God and man alike, but follows the normal way of life of his community. In a sense, then, the ideal here is a rather bourgeois one. The dominant voice in what is often referred to as “Wisdom literature”—i.e., Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and to a lesser extent some of the Psalms—is very “solid” and conventional, confident of itself and its own place in society, reminiscent of the fatherly voice of Polonius dispensing advice.

Nevertheless, in several important ways the ethos of the Psalmist, and of Proverbs, is diametrically opposed to the bourgeois ethos. The “rugged individualism” of the American frontier, which left its mark on American culture, implied a great sense of independence and responsibility for oneself, whose negative side is a certain indifference to the other; a philosophy that, “that’s his problem.” By contrast, the God-fearing man of the Jewish tradition is generous to a fault; he does not take interest, but scatters his wealth to the poor. He cannot abide seeing others live in conditions of poverty or suffering and, insofar as matters depend upon him, will do everything in his power to alleviate that poverty. He does not worry about whether he is creating a situation of “co-dependence” or whether it is his job to teach the poor man “responsibility.” Ultimately, of course, the highest level of tzedakah is to help the other stand upon his own feet—to teach him a trade, to help him find a job, etc. But, in the short term (and often that is all one gets to observe), the righteous man is the one who honen ve-noten (“feels pity, and gives”).

I knew of several people who quietly supported other individuals who for various reasons had “gone under,” enabling them to live—and die—with a certain minimum human dignity. Now that both they and the objects of their generosity are no longer among the living, I may mention their names: Prof. David Flusser (who is known for a totally different reason, that of his pioneering scholarship in the relationship between New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism) and Dr. Shimon Weiner. One needn’t add, that Shlomo Carlebach’s generosity and hesed was also an incredible phenomenon. May the memory of this aspect of their lives be a blessing and example to all of us.


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