Thursday, January 26, 2006

Vaera - Bo (Psalms)

Psalm 78: A Longer Short History of Israel

These two Torah portions tell the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt, which is the central event in the Book of Exodus, or Shemot. Bereshit, with its narratives of the patriarchs and their lives and times, is a kind of prehistory of Israel: the annals of the family that became the nation. Parshat Shemot is a kind of prelude to redemption, describing the events that led to the Exodus—the life of Moses, the beginnings of the enslavement in Egypt, etc. Vaera, by contrast, opens with the dramatic announcement of the imminent fulfillment of the Divine promise (“I am the Lord”—Rashi: “faithful to fulfill my promise…”) and continues, into Bo, with the events that set the liberation from Egypt in motion—Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh interspersed with the ten plagues, the death of the Egyptian first-born, the eating of the paschal lamb by the Israelites, and the actual departure from Egypt.

Hence, this is an appropriate occasion to introduce yet another genre of psalm: the historical psalm, that retells in poetic form the central events in the life of the people Israel. The relating of the sacred history of Israel—especially of the Exodus, the epiphany at Sinai, the wandering in the desert, and the entry into the Land of Israel—is a central imperative of the Torah—similar in value, if different in kind, from the law or halakhah of the Torah. ”Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you” (Deut 32:7). After all, if history is one of the central realms of God’s self-manifestation in the world, then the retelling of that history and, more important, its teaching and interpretation for lessons to be learned for the present, are central religious acts. One could well say that the commandments, incumbent upon parents, to teach Torah to their children, has two major components: knowledge of the mitzvot, of the practical commandments that the children will need to execute in everyday life; and knowledge of, and identification with, the past of the Jewish people.

Historical memory plays a central role in Jewish existence: the Passover Seder is the example par excellence of the centrality of transmission of the past from one generation to the next. But this is true, not only of events in hoary antiquity, but also of more recent history: in medieval times, chronicles of the Crusades and the acts of Kiddush Hashem that took place therein, were important; or, in contemporary Jewish life, the traumatic and triumphant events of recent times—i.e., the Holocaust, on the one hand, and the creation of the State of Israel, on the other—are central defining events. (See Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory [Seattle, 1982], for an interesting essay on the meanings of historical memory in Jewry.)

Throughout the Bible, the retelling of history—specifically, the retelling of the great formative event of the Exodus—is a major theme, and it is always interesting to note exactly how things are retold. To take a few examples from the earlier books of the Bible: a major portion of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel before his death and their crossing over the Jordan into the Land, consists of a recounting of the history of the forty years they have undergone together (Chapters 1-3, 8:2-10:11, and elsewhere throughout 4-11). Similarly, Joshua’s farewell exhortation to the nation in Josh 24:1-13 and the speech of the “angel of the Lord” in Judges 2 both begin with a recap of Israel’s history till then. When Samuel is asked by the people to appoint a king, he begins his response by recounting Israel’s history to that point (1 Sam 12:6-12), implying that the people managed well without a king for many years, and it is really superfluous to appoint a monarch at this point. Many more examples could be mentioned, such as Nehemiah 9:6-37 (the first few verses of which are familiar to many from the daily prayerbook).

Three of the longest psalms are devoted to retelling the sacred history of Israel: 78, 105, and 106. Psalm 78 is the longest of them all, and is in fact the second longest psalm of all (second only to 119, the eight-fold acrostic in praise of Torah). It opens with an invocation, describing the purpose of retelling history:

Give ear, my people, to my teaching, turn your ear to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter sayings of old. Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not withhold them from their children, telling the next generation: the glorious deeds of the Lord and His might, and the wonders which he has wrought.

Both the tone and several of the phrases used here are reminiscent of the Song of Moses, quoted earlier.

The psalm continues, swinging back and forth between descriptions of the people’s faithlessness to God, and God’s acts of kindness toward them:

1. The Desert Period (vv. 11-41). God’s kindnesses are revealed, first and foremost, in sustaining them in the desert in the most basic sense of providing nourishment: giving them water, bread (i.e., the manna, called “grain from heaven”—a favorite phrase of the Sefat Emet— and “bread of nobles”), and “meat”—i.e., the quail they were given when they complained about the boredom of their manna diet (a request that boomeranged). And yet they were not satisfied, did not appreciate God’s kindnesses, and in the end tried to “seduce” God with insincere words. Nevertheless, “He is compassionate, forgiving sin… and long suffering” (v. 38; a familiar phrase from the Evening Prayer) and, more importantly, “remembers that they are merely mortals, and will die, not to return” (v. 39)—a fact that somehow mitigates their wickedness, and elicits His compassion (compare our discussion of Ps 90, HY VI: Shemot).

2. The Exodus itself (vv. 42-51), presented in a kind of “flashback” in terms of the time sequence. The plagues are mentioned in the following passage:

The day … when He displayed His signs in Egypt, His wonders in the field of Zoan. He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of its stream, He inflicted them with swarms of insects to devour them, and frogs to destroy them. He gave their crops to grubs, and the fruit of their labor to the locusts. He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamores with frost. He gave their cattle over to the hail, their flocks to lightning bolts…. He smote every firstborn in Egypt, the first issue of their vigor in the tents of Ham. (vv 43-48, 51)

Interestingly, the description of the plagues in Psalm 105 (which will be discussed, with God’s help, come Pesah) is very similar: there, too (vv. 27-35), emphasis is placed, on the one hand, on the plagues of blood and frogs, which were particularly striking and dramatic in their physical appearance and, on the other, on the later plagues of hail and locusts, which decimated the Egyptians’ crops. Or, as Amos Hakham notes, the psalmist omits the last one in each trio of plagues (as is well known, the first nine plagues came in three groups of three, which follow identical patterns)—that of which Pharaoh was not warned in advance, but which Moses and Aaron precipitated on their own. (albeit, Psalm 105 also mentions the plague of darkness).

The concluding verse of the section about the plagues, “He let loose against them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, trouble, a band of deadly angels” (v. 49), appears in a midrash in the traditional Passover Haggadah. At almost every Seder I’ve ever attended, or conducted in my own home, people are puzzled by the group of three midrashim immediately preceding the hymn Dayyenu, in which the ten plagues, through what appears to the modern reader as exegetical sleight-of-hand, are miraculously increased to 50, 200, and 250 plagues that befell the Egyptians at the Sea. The proof text for the latter two such passages, given in the names of R. Eliezer and R. Akiva, are both based upon this verse, the various synonyms for the Divine anger — haron apo, evrah, za’am, tzarah, mishlahat malakhei ra’im—being used to multiply the original number of plagues by either four or five.

Emanuel Levinas, in his philosophical discourses on the Talmud (some of which have been translated into both English and Hebrew under the title Nine Talmudic Readings) notes that, “The excellent master who taught me the Talmud taught that it is proper to trust Talmudic references if one is very cautious… that, beyond this or that verse, closely or remotely supporting what a Talmud scholar is saying, it is by its spirit, that is, its context, that the verse conveys the proper tonality to the idea that it is supposed to establish” (p. 103). That is, that even the most seemingly far-fetched prooftext makes sense, if read carefully in terms of the overall context. This is reinforced if we consider the fact that Jews in ages past, certainly in Rabbinic times, were well-versed in the Bible. Thus, as soon as one verse or even phrase was quoted from Scripture, many listeners would immediately have in their mind’s eye the entire chapter from which it was quoted. The above-cited verse was not simply plucked at random, but appears immediately after the passage that retells the tale of the plagues that befell Egypt, and even functions as a kind of summary thereof. Hence, its exegetical use in the Haggadah may be seen, at very least, at one lesser degree of implausibility than most modern Pesah celebrants have thought—even if it still does strain modern sensibilities.

3. Leading them into the Land (vv. 51-72). The final section describes how God led them “like a flock” in the desert, providing for them securely, bringing them into the land, chasing away their enemies—and once again they rebelled, building high places and idols. And God was again angered, abandoning the tabernacle at Shiloh, allowing his priests and young men to be killed in war—until finally He chose the tribe of Judah as His chosen tribe, Mount Zion in Jerusalem as the holy mountain on which to build the Temple, and David, whom he took “from behind the flock” to lead His people, as king. The kingship of David is thus seen as the culmination, the climax, of the entire psalm.

Why were Joseph, Ephraim, and Shiloh so roundly condemned and rejected by God already then and in such strong language (“He was disgusted with the tent of Joseph…”; v. 67)? Was it for their building ”high places”? The sins of Eli’s sons? In anticipation of Jeroboam’s syncretism? We are not told.


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