Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Vayehi (Psalms)

Psalm 41: A Prayer in Time of Sickness

Psalm 41, like quite a number of other psalms, is a prayer uttered by a person suffering illness. It’s not entirely clear whether the opening two verses are spoken by the sick person himself, or by some third party speaking of him or on his behalf. The opening phrase, ashrei maskil el dal, is taken by some to mean “Happy [or: blessed] is he who is thoughtful to the wretched”: that such a person will be rewarded with blessing, so that when bad times befall him God will deliver him, guarding him and restoring his life, protecting him from his enemies, etc. Alternatively, it may be parsed as “Happy is he who becomes enlightened from [the experience of] the wretched”—and proceeds to tell the story of how God rescued this misfortunate man during his bad times, etc.

What I found most striking about this psalm is that, even more than the threat posed by his illness, the author is troubled about his enemies, who are gloating over him and waiting for him to die. Unlike the proverbial poor cousins in a Victorian drama, these are not waiting for the miserly rich old aunt to die so they may receive her inheritance, but simply wish to see him dead, out of sheer cussedness. These include supposed friends, who are exposed in their true colors by this event (v. 10: “even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who broke bread with me, has lifted his heel against me”). Compare Psalm 55 (discussed in HY VI: Vayishlah) or Psalm 38, in which enemies and illness are also closely associated.

In this context, there is an interesting midrash that mentions a series of seemingly negative aspects of life that are really blessings in disguise (Gen. Rab. 65.9; see HY III: Toldot). Thus, Jacob’s illness (he is described as the first person to die following an illness), elaborated at some length in this week’s parsha, is seen as an opportunity for him to settle his affairs prior to his death. He gathers his children together, gives them blessings (and, in some cases, stern admonitions), and even alludes to eschatological revelations—and, in the end, makes a sort of peace among this fractious bunch. This is evidently the reason for the choice of this psalm for this particular Shabbat. This Torah portion is devoted almost exclusively to Jacob‘s death: it glosses over his seventeen years in Egypt in a few sentences (notwithstanding that many commentators note that these were the best years of his life), focusing first upon his leave-taking of Joseph and his sons, then on the blessings to all his twelve sons, and finally upon his death and the elaborate procedures around his return to the Land of Israel and his burial. As Rav Soloveitchik once noted, this entire sedrah is a kind of excursus, totally unnecessary to “advancing” the flow of the Torah’s narrative. One could jump from Gen 47:27, the last verse of Vayigash, to Exodus 1:1, without missing anything essential for the continuity of the events; indeed, there are thematic and even direct linguistic connections between the two (compare “and they were fruitful and multiplied”—in that verse to “… were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and were very powerful…” in Exod 1:7).

Second, and perhaps more important as a universal human message, illness is a time of vulnerability, of dependence upon others. At times it happens that a person who has been highly capable, competent, the pillar of his family and a central figure in his profession and his community, falls sick, and is suddenly totally dependent upon the help and succor of others. There often seems something anomalous in such a situation, a kind of cognitive dissonance, a sense in which the new situation seems strange and difficult to grasp—although of course this is no more than the way of human life. Hopefully, those whom he had helped in the past will return the favor and assist him in his hour of travail. But if not—perhaps because he was not generous or kindly to others, but was wholly self-contained, a “rugged individualist” who relied only on his own strength and wits and rejected the company of others; or perhaps those around him are by nature ungrateful and unappreciative folks, who don’t practice this idea of human interdependence—he may find himself utterly alone in his time of weakness. Loneliness, and even more so enmity, are particularly hard to take at such times.

Be that as it may, the concluding section of this psalm (vv. 11-13) expresses the idea that God will act to comfort the person abandoned by his fellows in a time of trouble. The question is: how does he arrive at this place of trust in God? A small anecdote, unrelated to illness, may illustrate this point. Imagine a young boy, who had lived a heretofore protected life, going away to summer camp for the first time. Perhaps he has been something of a loner, and his parents want him to learn to mix with his age-mates. Soon his companions at camp begin to sense that he is something of a misfit, that he is different from the others, and begin to make him into a scapegoat, pouring upon him all the viciousness that only thirteen–year-old boys know how to dispense. Day after day, he suffers the taunts and torments—and at times physical torture—of his bunk mates. One day, another boy—also an outsider—speaks to him and indicates that he has noticed what has been going on. At last, he thinks, he has found a friend, someone who sympathizes with him. Then the other boy asks him a puzzling question: “Do you believe in God?” And continues, “for if you do, it can be a great source of comfort.” He does not know what to answer. He has never been asked such a question before, he has not been raised in a particularly religious atmosphere, and he has never devoted much thought to the question of God’s existence (ironically, his bunk mates come from good, observant Jewish homes; their sadistic ring-leader is even a rabbi’s son!). But even if he did believe, he wonders to himself, how could an abstract belief in God help him to weather the everyday pains of life with his tormenters?

How can knowing there is a God be a source of comfort? On one level, the knowledge that there is a God who ultimately sets things aright; who is the source of justice, of ethics, of right and wrong, so that, however ascendant “evil-doers” may be (see Psalm 92, the song for Shabbat, esp. v. 8)—whether an ordinary bunch of nasty twelve-year-old kids, garden-variety adult cheats, thieves, and liars, violent criminals, or international terrorists who threaten the future of the planet—one knows that one is ultimately on the side of the just and the upright and the holy—and at times this must suffice.

But there is more than that. In a way, this is the central issue raised by every one of the psalms—certainly by those, several dozen in number, that express the author’s cry of pain and his call for help in real–life situations of suffering. The Psalter is not a book of abstract theological affirmations. Its author or authors were not troubled by such issues as, e.g., the thirteen principles of faith. Its language is not a discursive one, but an emotional language, the language of the heart. The sense of God’s presence was very real to them. The issue for them was not: Does God exist? or even, Will God help me? But only, so to speak: When will God come already and get me out of this mess?

I have known people who lived and felt in these terms, for whom God is a tangible reality, not a subject for philosophical or other sorts of rational discussion; a kind of an intimate friend, to whom one can turn freely at any and all times, albeit with a certain modicum of respect. I have felt this myself, in certain rare moments of grace. And these feelings are the product of lessons learned in life, not in the classroom or the lecture hall—and more often than not, through suffering and difficulties in life. Thus, Shlomo Carlebach taught Torah with such fervor, with such emotional depth, in the sense of “things that come from the heart and go to the heart,” precisely because, for whatever reason, he had so much pain in his own life.

An amusing thought crossed my mind while writing this: Did Rambam say Tehillim? His system doesn’t seem to leave much room for this type of personal faith. His God is transcendent, one who by and large runs the world with fixed and unyielding laws, both physical and moral, one to whom one cannot attribute human attributes such as caring, love, involvement. And yet, Rambam too expresses a kind of intense, passionate love for God that belies his theoretical position and somehow allows room for the personal as well.

Verse 5b: Refa’ah nafshi ki hatati lakh. “Heal my soul for I have sinned against you.” Is the author saying that his illness is a punishment for sin (in the weekday Amidah, the blessings for forgiveness and for healing are closely linked: see Megillah 18b and its interpretation of Ps 103:3; but the connection there is the opposite: that sin is a form or variety of sickness—“sickness of the soul”)? Or is his sense, rather, “Heal me, O God, even though I’ve sinned”—that is, a plea for mercy and not to be judged harshly. By and large, suffering is a puzzle to Hazal. The Sages believed in a general way in Divine recompense and providence, in reward and punishment, but they were too sophisticated not to be aware that things often as not don’t work out that way in the world. Hence, the pat answers to the problem of theodicy offered by Job’s friends are rejected as shallow and superficial (this is at least one plausible reading of the book, suggested once in a lecture by Moshe Halbertal). Again, the solution to the problem of “why bad things happen to good people” (the contemporary author of a book by that title wasn’t really saying anything new) lies in the heart: not in clever formulations, but in a deep emotional acceptance of God’s ways in the world, and a sense of joy and peace in His presence, no matter what befalls one.

The final verse of the psalm, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel forever and ever; Amen and Amen,” serves a double function. It may be read as what the speaker will say once God “sets him upright,“ as in v. 13. But it is also a festive editorial peroration of the first book of Psalms, which concludes with Psalm 41—but that leads us into an entirely different set of problems, having to do with the structure of the Book of Psalms, its division into five books, etc., with which we will deal another time.


Blogger Amanda Rush said...

Shalom Rabbi Yehonatan:

I've been reading your blog for a while, and really enjoy it.
I was wondering if you could post your list of Tehillim corresponding to the weekly portion.
I used to have a copy of a list in English, but can't seem to find it, or the source on the 'net where I found it.

3:32 AM  

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