Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Shemot (Psalms)

Moses the Man of God: Psalm 90

In this week’s parsha, the Torah introduces the figure after whom the Torah is named, who is present, in one way or another, in virtually all the Torah portions from here on in. Hence (this time, departing from the list that has guided us thus far, which stipulates Psalm 99—“Moses and Aaron among his priests”—as the reading for Parshat Shemot), this week we decided to discuss the one psalm in whose title Moses’ name appears: Psalm 90, “A prayer of Moses, the Man of God.” Interestingly, this title for Moses appears in only one place in the Torah: Deuteronomy 33, in Moses’ final blessing to the people prior to his death. Similarly, Moses’ name hardly appears at all in the Passover Haggadah, suggesting an ambivalence about overemphasizing the personality of the leader (out of fear that he might be worshipped instead of God?).

This psalm belongs to a different genre than those we have studied thus far. It does not fall under the rubric of either personal prayer or praise of God; rather, it might best be described as a reflection on a particular theme—in this case, that of the meaning of human mortality, contrasted to God’s eternity. This genre is sometimes referred to as “sapitential” (from the Latin sapiens, “to taste” or “know,” meaning “having or expounding wisdom”), “wisdom,” or “instructional” poetry. But, to expand a comment we made last week, these psalms are not philosophical in the Greek sense of formal, systematic discourses on a certain question, but instead are subjective, emotional, even personal in their tone. The sense given is that they were written to prompt the worshipper to contemplate various aspects of life. They are more concerned with implanting their truths in the human heart, rather than with abstract truths or rigorous proofs that will stand up in the classroom or in an academic journal.

In terms of liturgical use: this psalm is among those recited on Shabbat in Pesukei de-Zimra. As is known, on Shabbat and festival mornings a whole series of psalms—19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92 and 93—are added to the core group of six psalms recited on weekdays. It seems to me that many of those psalms selected by the compilers of the Siddur to be added on Shabbat belong to the category of wisdom psalms. Shabbat, as a day of rest, leisure and calm, was seen as producing a certain mental tranquility and greater breadth and comprehension of the mind, and hence as the ideal time for Torah study. In the context of the Siddur, this includes not only halakhah or Humash, but also reflection upon basic religious principles. Thus, we read Psalm 19, which speaks of both the Torah and the cosmos as reflecting God’s glory; 34, which like several other psalms reflects both upon God’s qualities and the qualities of the good man; 91, a meditation on God’s protection of his beloved even on the very edge of danger and oblivion; and our psalm.

Our psalm is divided into three main sections: vv. 1-4 portray God’s eternity, and provide a glimpse of His purview of the world, and even more so of human life, as fleeting and brief; vv. 5-11 contain a reflection on human mortality, and the inevitability of death as an expression of Divine wrath; while vv. 12-17 provide advice to human beings as to how to cope with their own mortality.

I will begin with a few comments about some specific verses. First, the title verse, “a Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Moses was not only the master of the prophets, the teacher of all Israel, the instrument by which Torah was conveyed to Israel, but also “the man of God.” In a sense, he served as a kind of intermediary between man (or more specifically, the Jewish people) and God. In many passages, and even more so in midrashim, it is unclear whether he is closer to God or to man (see my discussion in HY III: Ki Tisa). In addition to Moses, the phrase is used of Elijah and Elisha—but also, rather surprisingly, of the anonymous prophet who chastises Jeroboam in 1 Kings 13, but later comes to a bad end.

Perhaps, by way of derush, one could say that the sense of the heading is that the man Moses had the rare ability to fully accept his mortality, and to see the world as God Himself sees it—in the grand, long range perspective in which the brevity and insecurity of individual human life is no longer a source of pain and tragedy, but accepted “philosophically.”

The opening verses, vv. 1-2— “before the mountains were brought forth, and before the earth was formed…”—conveys, perhaps for the first time in the Bible, a central Jewish theological concept, that of God’s preexistence. He was there even before Creation, as in Adon Olam: “The master of the world, who reigned before any creature had been created,” or elsewhere in the daily prayers, “You are He who existed before the world was created, you are He since there has been a world.” There is an important medieval philosophical discussion as to whether the universe is eternal or was created at some point in time (but what does it mean to speak of time itself before there was a universe—particularly in an Einsteinian or post-Einsteinian universe); Maimonides takes pains to articulate the Jewish position of the world being created and not eternal—but also notes that even if it is eternal, this does not confute the arguments for God’s existence (see Guide I.74-76; II.13-24). But, in truth, it is difficult for the human mind to begin to comprehend the concept of “Being” before matter itself existed. Kabbalistic tradition speaks of Ein Sof, the recesses of Eternity within which God dwells even before Creation, as being beyond the realm of discussion or teaching even for those most proficient in the esoteric mysteries of the Divine.

Verse 4: “A thousand years are in Your eyes like but one day that has passed…” This verse is the basis of the well-known messianic scheme (Sanhedrin 97a), according to which the universe will last 6000 years, corresponding to the six days of Creation, while the seventh millennium will be the messianic age, the “day which is entirely Shabbat.”

v. 10: the traditional notion of the human life span as being “three-score and ten” is taken from the phrase: “the days of our life are seventy years, and with strength eighty years…” Nowadays, these perceptions of age are changing. Many 70-year-olds and older are very much in the midst of active life. Certainly in the academic world and the intellectual life, many people, even if formally retired, continue writing, lecturing, and generally being involved in the community for may years. Several octogenarians with whom I have had ongoing contact recently are full of vitality and creativity. (At times even tragic-comically so, as shown by the recent snafu in the coalition negotiations in Israel, involving the unflagging lust for honor and title of an 82-year-old leader.)

What is meant by “and with strengths (gevurot) eighty years”? The aches and pains that are nevertheless suffered by many elderly people would seem to belie the reading that “strengths” refers to that of the long-lived individual. It has been suggested that the “strengths” referred to are those of God: the old-timer is a living testimony to Divine might and power.

The word rohbam in that same verse is unusual. Often misread as rabam (“most of them”), it in fact means “pride” or “the best of them”: to wit, ”even the best of [our years] are toil and trouble.” The root is related to the phrase hemah hirhivuni in Song of Songs 6:5 (where a glance from his girls’ eyes exerts an irresistible, disturbing pull over her lover’s emotions), as well as to Rahav, the mythical, primordial sea monster of Isaiah 30:7; 51:9; Ps 89:11; and Job 9:13 and 26:12.

Turning now to two central theological problems presented here. The middle section describes the utter transience and contingent nature of human life, “like grass, which flourishes in the morning… and fades and withers in the evening” (vv. 5-6). I find this interpretation of death, as a manifestation of Divine anger and wrath, very problematic. Does it imply a notion of “Original Sin”: that if a person one were perfectly obedient to the Torah, he would never die? It seems to contradict ordinary human experience, in which death is “the way of the world,” a natural part of life, that comes sooner or later to every person, wicked or righteous (as Kohelet expresses with great eloquence in his book). True, every living person has shortcomings, and commits sins of omission or commission at one time or another during his life—but there are certainly many people who are on the whole saintly, loving, ethical, upright people, at worst guilty of minor peccadilloes, to whom death also comes. “There is no [wholly] righteous man in the land, who does good and does not sin.” And if long life is a sign of especial Divine favor, what of those who committed much evil in their lifetimes, and lived a century or more, such as Nazi propaganda film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, or Madame Chiang kai-Chek, who was prepared to risk a nuclear holocaust in a dispute over two tiny islands, and died at 105?

All of the above was written before the events of Sunday, December 26—the Tsunami tidal wave, which inundated much of the Indian Ocean basin, killing myriads of innocent people within minutes. Overnight, verse 7 of our psalm, “For we are consumed by Your anger, terror-stricken by Your fury,” sounded frighteningly current. Each day this week, the headlines contained new and ever more mind-boggling numbers of the estimated dead. To date, more than 120,000 are dead and countless millions homeless, having lost in an instant everything for which they may have labored for decades—not to mention the epidemic diseases which all authorities tell us to be expected. Here in Israel, when suicide terrorists have killed three or four people the country holds its collective breath; when fifteen or twenty or more have been killed at once, we feel that it is a disaster of major proportions. How then are we to react to this catastrophe? The mind boggles, finding it impossible to even comprehend the scope of a disaster such as this.

And how are we to understand such a disaster as religious people? An editorial columnist of the Guardian, Martin Kettle, took the opportunity to take religion to task for positing a just God, implying that this disaster shows the inadequacy and hollowness of religious positions. This is no time for pat answers. All we can say is that God has created a world in which monstrous, inexplicable things like this, destroying innocent lives, do happen. The answer cannot be any “explanation” or “justification,” but only an emotional affirmation of faith, of the ilk of Job’s “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (And, by the way, the transition from the bleak middle section to the concluding verses of this psalm also reads more like an emotional transition, an inner change of perspective, than it does to any objective change in reality.)

What, then, ought men to do in response to this picture?

Teach us to count our days, that we may attain a wise heart… Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love, that we may sing in joy all our days. Make us glad according to the days wherein You hast afflicted us, for the years in which we have seen evil…. (vv. 12-15)

This may be read in two ways: first, as a prayer for Divine mercy in the objective sense: that us, give us good years to compensate for all the bad stuff and suffering we have endured. Alternatively, it may be read as “teach us to count our days” in a different way: to know how to accept our mortality, for a change of consciousness, if you will even a kind of detachment from the sort of things that most people want in life, so that one’s happiness is not dependent upon any external thing or condition, but simply upon the sense of basking in God’s steadfast ongoing love. If you like, an almost Buddhist type of message—which is not all that alien to, e.g., certain Hasidic ways of thinking.

To return specifically to the verse “teach us to count our days”: a Bratslaver tract called Emunat Itekha expounds the idea that the essence of Torah is to know how to value time; to know that every day, every hour of life is precious, not to be wasted in vain things. The point of such mitzvot as tefillin or Sefirat ha-Omer are to mark each day as significant. Tefillin marks each day as an occasion for renewing the covenant of personal holiness, of the body as a vessel for the Divine word, while Sefirat ha-Omer suggests that the consciousness of days, of time per se, even without any specific redemptive act, somehow prepares us to receive Torah. In the early years of the Havurat Shalom in Boston, there was a Sefirat ha-Omer clock, made by Zalman Schachter, placed in the main hall during that season, whose hands pointed to the weeks and days that has passed (in both numbers and sefirot), bearing this verse as its heading. I have adopted the custom of reciting this verse before Sefirat ha-Omer every night.


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