Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Psalms)

Psalm 48: “Surround Zion and Encompass It”

Parshat Vayigash marks off what might be called the “fault line” within the Jewish people. The confrontation between Joseph and Judah, which reaches its climax in the opening verses of this week’s parsha, is seen as epitomizing the conflict between them and the tribes that stemmed from them for leadership of the people Israel (see HY I: Vayigash); it foreshadows the split in the people after the death of Solomon (hints of which are seen in the Book of Judges and elsewhere), which ultimately resulted in the severance from the Jewish people of ten of the twelve tribes. (Probably lost among the other nations, medieval legend saw them living in a rich and powerful kingdom “behind the mountains of darkness,” in the obscure reaches of central Asia. Some hold that the Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the lost tribe of Dan; other find remnants of lost tribes in crypto–Jewish groups as far-flung as the mountains of Peru or Bolivia, the jungles of Western Africa, and certain Muslim tribes of Afghanistan). This is also the reason for the choice of this week’s haftarah.

My list of psalms recommends reciting Psalm 48 on this Shabbat. The only connection I could find between this psalm and the Torah portion is in one of the opening midrashim on this parsha, Genesis Rabbah 93.2, which reads a key verse from this psalm, “For the kings took counsel, they advanced together” (v. 5) as alluding to Joseph and Judah:

“The kings”—this refers to Judah and Joseph. “Advanced together [or: were furious; עברו, מל' עברה) together—this one was filled with fury at that one, and that one was filled with fury at this one. “They no sooner saw it, then they were astonished [tamahu]”—[when Joseph seated them by age at the banquet] “and the men looked at each other in astonishment” [Gen 43:33]. “They were confused (nivhalu) and panicked (nehpazu)‘’—“And his brothers could not speak, for they were confused in his presence” [45:3]. “Trembling seized them, like a woman in labor” [v. 7]. These were the tribes [i.e., the other brothers]: They said to each other: the kings are debating with one another, what concern is it of ours?! [i.e., it is beyond our ken] It is fitting that a king debate with a king. “And Judah approached him” [Gen 44:18]

We shall return to this aspect later on. On the face of it, the central theme of Psalm 48 is Jerusalem, its holiness, its beauty, and the fascination it holds for so many people. The psalm itself is familiar to Jews who worship regularly, being one of the Levitical psalms for the various days of the week—in this case, the psalm for Monday. (The reason for this choice is unclear: some say that it is related to the division of heaven and earth performed on that day of Creation; others, that it is a logical sequel to Psalm 24, the hymn for Sunday, both being hymns suitable for pilgrims coming up to Jerusalem). The opening verses contains a series of epithets for the city: “the city of our God, His holy mountain, beautiful in vista, joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, the far reaches of the north, city of the great king” (vv. 2-3). Interestingly, the name Jerusalem appears nowhere in this psalm.

The next section, vv. 5-8 or 5-9, is a bit problematic. It describes a group of kings ”assembling” or “taking counsel together,” presumably to launch an attack on Jerusalem, but as soon as they see it they stop short, “astonished… confused… shocked… shocked”— the psalm doesn’t state exactly by what. It has been suggested that this may allude to Sennacherib’s attack of 721 BCE in which, after successfully overrunning the separatist kingdom of Israel in the north of Eretz Yisrael, his forces were stopped short on the very outskirts of Jerusalem, the night before the planned attack, by some mysterious event. A plague? A rare crippling snowstorm? In any event, there are at least two difficulties with these verses, taken literally: a) Jerusalem in biblical times was never attacked by a confederation of kings, but only, as in the case mentioned above or by Nebuchadnezzar in 586, by one king at a time; b) what is the point of the reference to ships in the next verse? ”With an east wind You smashed the ships of Tarshish” (v. 8) Jerusalem is landlocked, high in the mountains, so that any invaders coming by ship would need to make the long ascent to the city after anchoring at Yaffo or elsewhere on the Mediterranean.

The last group of verses again speak of God’s presence in ”the city of our God,” and how His kindness and justice are tangibly felt therein. There is an invocation to the “daughters of Judah” to rejoice, and a call to “Walk around Zion and circle her, count her towers” (v. 13), to tell it to the latter generations.

But leaving aside the problems, let us focus upon the theme of Jerusalem per se as the beauty of the earth. Jerusalem is a favorite theme in the Psalter. Other psalms devoted wholly or in large measure to the city include 122, 125, and 126 in the Shir ha-Maalot series, strengthening the possibility, implied by its title, that these psalms were concerned with pilgrimage to the Holy City; and Psalm 87—also a Korahite psalm, which again uses the terms “Zion” and “city of God,” but not “Jerusalem,” and which, interestingly, speaks of the unique special feeling of “one who was born there.” (A distant cousin of mine, who at the time thought of himself as a thoroughly secular Israeli—although he later became religious—used to tell me that the sense of being a “Yerushalmi,” someone who was born and grew up in this unique city, was something special and an important element of his identity). I find it interesting that in our psalm, as well as in several others, there is little or no specific mention of the Temple, as if the holiness and beauty and grandeur of Jerusalem were enough unto themselves. What is the concept of a holy city? There is something paradoxical in this notion; some years ago American theologian Harvey Cox wrote a book called The Secular City, in which he said that the modern city, as an expression of human autonomy and human choice and this–worldly oriented human community, was in many significant ways diametrically opposed to traditional notions of holiness rooted in transcendence. Yet we nevertheless speak of Jerusalem as a holy city: it is a place where people live and work and do business and engage in all the mundane activities of life—but it is a focus, a source of holiness.

Or we may go back one step, and ask what is meant, in general, by the concept of a city as a place with a specific character. The city per se is a place, a collection of streets and buildings; it has no real life without the people who inhabit it—or does it? Italo Calvino, in his poem-like Invisible Cities, invokes the idea of the city as a living organism, portraying a series of imaginary cities, each one unique and fascinating and totally different from any other. And it is of course true of real cities as well. Something like that, if not more than that, is invoked by our psalm: Jerusalem as a jewel-like city, high in the hills, attracting and fascinating people from afar.

The verse “Walk round it, circle it, count its towers… that you may tell to the latter generation” is interesting. The very appearance of the city, its walls and towers and the experience of circling it of seeing it from every aside, is something to be remembered and told to ones children and grandchildren—as concrete witness to something else, intangible, towards which it points. “For this is God our God forevermore, He shall guide us forever.” In the end, the city of God differs from other, secular cities, because it is a place over which the Divine Presence somehow still hovers, however faintly and distantly. As Rambam says in Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.1-2, it is a place which has somehow served as a meeting ground between heaven and earth—the place of one of the earliest encounter between man and God, at the binding of Isaac, and before that when Noah built an altar, and even before that as the soil from which Adam was created (see HY V: Yom Yerushalayim).

It is this which has captured the imagination of humankind—making Jerusalem a focus of controversy and even of “holy” warfare and crusades. I don’t know whether Jerusalem and its “sacred center” contain the secret to the solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as some expert, full-time Jerusalemogists have suggested. There is no lack of visionaries and pundits: one suggests a complex vertical, horizontal and conceptual division of sovereignties over the Temple Mount; another, noting its sacredness to three religions, suggests building a center for inter-religious understanding somewhere on the Mount of Olives; a third one is busy constructing a grandiose and rather grotesque and out-of-place building, albeit designed by a world-class architect, to serve as a center for tolerance (while destroying a place which symbolizes real tolerance and freedom in action, without a multi-million dollar investment—the open air “flea market”); while yet another envisions Jerusalem as a virtual, hologram-like temple of all religions, connected by invisible lines in a sacred pentagram.

I don’t know whether any of these solutions will bear fruit. We can only conclude by turning full circle to where we started: Vayigash as a fault line, introducing the internal division of the Jewish people. Psalm 122 speaks of Zion as “the city that is bound together… for there the tribes, the tribes of Yah ascended.” It is the city itself, according to Midrash, binds together and heals the rift within the people.


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