Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Beshalah (Psalms)

Psalm 114: “When Israel left Egypt”

This week’s Torah reading focuses upon two events that signaled the climax of the Exodus from Egypt—the Splitting of the Sea and the Song sung by the Israelites in response. Psalm 114 is a short hymn, almost perfect poetically, that describes these events. It needs no introduction to any synagogue-going Jew: it constitutes the second chapter of the Hallel, recited on all major festivals and on various other occasions and, of the six chapters that compose Hallel, is the only one that deals directly with the Exodus. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that the proper name of Hallel, Hallel ha-Mitzri, “the Egyptian Hallel,” is taken specifically from this psalm. Moreover, at the Passover Seder this psalm, together with Psalm 113, is recited during the first part of the Seder, that which concludes the narrative part of the Haggadah and immediately precedes the second cup of wine, the matzah and marror, and the meal.

But precisely because it is so familiar, most people may only rarely pause to try to understand it or to think about what it is saying. I, for one, find it hard to read its familiar words without hearing in my mind one or another of the beautiful melodies, from Modzitz or Shlomo Carlebach or older traditions, that invariably accompany the reading of this psalm in the synagogue.

As Amos Hakham notes, this chapter is a prime example pf the poetics of Tehillim. In terms of its formal arrangement, it is marked by perfect balance: eight verses, in four pairs of two verses. Each verse consist of two strophes, with similar ideas expressed in both halves, a verb or adjective from the first half being implied in the second half as well: thus, “when Israel left Egypt, [when] the House of Jacob [left] a nation of strange tongue,” and so on. The middle four verses are symmetrical: a statement, followed by a question using almost the identical words: “The sea saw and fled …. What alarms you, O sea, that you flee?…” (In this connection it should be remembered that biblical poetics always centers around balance, meter, and repetition of the same phrase using synonyms, rather than with rhyme. It is only in medieval Hebrew piyyut and Shabbat zemirot that we begin to find rhymed endings: e.g., Menuhah ve-Simhah, Yom zeh Mekhubad, Yah Ribbon, etc.)

Beyond these brief comments about its formal poetics, what is this psalm all about? The central figure—is it a metaphor or intended as a literal description?—is that of the sea and mountains fleeing or jumping about, overwhelmed by God’s presence, by His epiphany at the time of the Exodus. In the Song of the Sea that follows the Torah’s description of the event, it is the other nations— Philistia, Moab, Edom, Canaan—that are frightened upon hearing of the splitting of the sea (Exodus 15:14-16); the actual purpose of the splitting of the Sea was a practical one: to enable the Israelites the to cross, so as to leave the Egyptian behind them once and for all. Here, it is portrayed as an emotional reaction of the Sea—and, in the same breath, the Jordan is also shown as “turning back” (a reference to an event that occurred forty years later, when the Israelites entered the Land; see Joshua 3:6-4:24).

Moreover, the mountains—the most massive, immovable objects in our world, are shown as skipping and gamboling like young sheep or rams. Again, in the original description of Sinai the people are shown as trembling in fear and terror, moving away (the midrash says that they “jumped” 12 mil backwards), asking Moses to serve as intermediary, conveying to them what God had to say—albeit, in Exodus 19:18 it also says that “the entire mountain trembled greatly.” But in the poetic recounting of these events in later parts of Bible, a repeated motif is the trembling and fear of various elements of nature—thus in the song of Deborah (Jdg 5:4-5), in Habakkuk’s Hymn (Hab 3:10-11), in Ps 68:8-9 (see next week’s study), and of course here.

Is this intended as a metaphor, as an anthropomorphic way of conveying the overwhelming nature of this experience, the sheer power and majesty of God, that it aroused even inanimate objects to a response of awe and trepidation ? Or is it meant literally, namely, that the events of Sinai or of the Sea upset not only the natural laws needed for the event itself, but that the entire order of nature was temporarily changed? I’m not sure how important the answer to either of these questions is. For the psalmist, the important thing was the religious experience: conveying the sense of awe, of confronting something tremendous, uncanny, totally beyond any mundane, earthly experience, Otto’s “Wholly Other,” in these events.

An interesting theological concept mentioned in some Habad texts relates to this idea (Likkutei Torah, Tzav, s.v. sheshet yamim; see HY IV: Pesah). R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady describes two kinds of Divine presence in the world. The usual one is that of cause and effect: a long chain of causality, through a series of intermediaries (both natural and sefirotic) by which the Divine fulness is brought down into our physical world. There is thus no immediate or obvious sense of Divine presence visible to ordinary perception; hence, one needs to reflect deeply upon how all this has come about in order to attain some sort of religious insight.

But occasionally there are moments of grace, in which God manifests himself through a dramatic irruption into history. Specifically, in three great moments—the night of the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea, and the Revelation at Sinai—the Almighty burst through this chain of causality to make Himself known in a direct, immediate way. This moment was so powerful, that even inanimate objects such as dough—or, we would add here, the sea and the mountains—were, so to speak, overcome by awe of the Divine Glory and did not rise, but remained flat, unleavened bread. This is the symbolism of matzah.

A few comments about specific phrases in this psalm:

1. The word lo’ez in the first verse means “speaking a foreign tongue.” While today this is a familiar Hebrew word, it is in fact a hapax legomena, a word that appears only once in the entire Bible, and whose meaning is thus regarded by scholars as requiring further investigation. Originally, the word was seen as carrying a somewhat negatuve, if not sinister connotation: “to speak indistinctly, unintelligibly, to mutter, speak obscurely.”

It is interesting that other words, or specifically roots, beginning with the letters lamed–“ayin, seem to have related or similar connotations, relating to speech or to other activities of the throat. Thus, la’ag means “to ridicule, to speak of someone in contemptuous fashion.” Le'at means “to swallow.“ All of which is suggestive of the notion of the so-called “two-letter families” of words in Hebrew: that is, that in additional to the three-letter roots of standard grammar, there are broader groups of words or semantic fields that have two of the three letters in common.

This is perhaps a suitable time to mention that I have found the process of studying Psalms in preparation for writing these studies very interesting simply in terms of learning something of the riches of the Hebrew language. There is a tendency in the yeshiva world and in much of the Orthodox world to take the Psalms for granted, to see them as an inferior subject of concern, as words to be read, as a kind of pious exercise for those who don’t know how to study “serious” texts, such as Talmud and rishonim. What I have found is that there is a wealth of meaning and insight and wisdom hidden within the short chapters of this book, and that its study presents a fascinating intellectual challenge. To begin with, its vocabulary includes many unusual words. There is hardly a single psalm where I have not needed to resort to dictionaries and lexicons to understand the nuances and connotations, or even the simple meaning, of many of its words. I am also constantly surprised to discover how many familiar, everyday words are hapax legomena, words that appear only once in the entire Bible (another surprising example, this one not from Psalms, is the word sulam, “ladder” or “stairs,” in the story of Jacob’s vision at Bethel; Gen 28:12).

It is also instructive to understand how Hebrew is put together as a language, and to find that virtually all of its vocabulary, even those used for the most abstract concepts, have originate in concrete things. Thus, the root hanekh meaning “to educate” or “train,” is conjectured to have come originally from the bit placed in a horse’s mouth (hakeh) that sits on his gums and is used in the process of training ot teaching.

2. Halamish, “flintstone,” in the final verse. I find it interesting that in the two incidents recorded in the Torah in which Moses brings forth water from the rock: in Exod 17:6, where he speaks to it, and much later, in Num 20:7-11, where he hits it with his staff—an act for which he was punished severely—the words used are tzur / sela’, both generic terms for rocks. Here, and in other poetic renderings of that incident, the word used is halamish, “flint,” treated as a synonym for sela’ or used in conjunction with it. Thus, in Deut 8:15, God sustains the Israelites in the desert with food and water, the latter taken from tzur ha-halamish; in the Song of Moses, Deut 32:13, God gives them “to suck” honey and oil (!) from the sela’ & halamish tzur (an event described nowhere else); while here too tzur and halamish are used in parallel. (But see Ps 78:15-16 and 105:41, where tzur and sela’ are used alone.)

Also interesting is that the splitting of the rock is rather different from the way it is described in the Torah. Rather than water spurting forth from the rock, the rock itself turns into “a pool of water” or “a flowing spring.”

3. “At the presence of the Lord, tremble, O earth” (v. 7). The Hebrew usage here is unique, a point totally lost in the translation of Adon as ”the Lord.” Adonai, usually translated as “Lord,” is routinely used as a euphemism for the Ineffable Name (HVYH), but “Lord” or ”Master” per se is only rarely used as a title for God. At most, and again in only a handful of places, it is used in conjunction with other titles—ha-adon HWYH Tzeva/ot (“the Master, Lord of Hosts”) or adon kol ha-aretz(“the Master of the entire earth”). This verse is in fact the only case where the word Adon is used for God by itself and unadorned. There is a certain power in this usage: He is the Master; He whose very being conveys rulership, mastery, obedience. It is as if His mastery is so absolute that there is no need for any further term to identify Him (compare its ironic usage in eulogies of human rulers in Jer 22:18; 34:5).


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