Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mishpatim (Psalms)

Psalm 72: The Righteous King

In tandem with this week’s parsha, which introduces many of the concepts and basic rules of Jewish civil law, it is suggested to recite Psalm 72, which opens: “Of Solomon: O God, give Your justice to the king, and Your righteousness to the son of the king…” The midrashic tradition sees this as a charge and blessing given by King David, perhaps in his final days, to his son and heir Solomon.

The psalm interweaves two basic themes: a) vv. 5-11: a blessing to the king, that he may enjoy power and dominion over a vast empire and be held in awe and reverence by many other nations (“from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth… the kings of Tarshish and the islands… Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts”; vv. 8, 10), and, speaking with obvious hyperbole, that his reign may last “as long as there is a moon” (v. 5); b) vv. 2-4, 12-17: a charge and statement of his ethical duty to care for the poor and unfortunate and to implement a regime of social justice and prosperity throughout the land (“He will deliver the needy when he cries out… redeem their soul from oppression and violence; their blood shall be precious in his sight”; vv. 12, 14), in part through the extraordinary fruitfulness and abundance with which God will bless nature in his behalf (“There shall be abundant grain in the land; it shall wave on the tops of the mountains, and its fruits shall be like Lebanon; they shall blossom forth [even] from the cities”: v. 16). The last three verses (vv. 18-20) consist of more general blessings to God, forming a festive conclusion to the second book of Psalms, with the enigmatic note that “Completed are the prayers of David son of Jesse” (see our discussion in HY VI: Beshalah).

While much of the psalm, particularly the reference to an extensive empire and the allusion to Sheba, well fits the reign of Solomon, some commentators have suggested that this psalm may allude to a messianic figure, for whom the super-natural abundance of nature and the continuation of whose reign into an endless future are more suitable.

As for the imperative of concern for the poor: some go so far as to read v. 15, “And he will give him the gold of Sheba” as meaning that the king will distribute the gold he received as a gift from the ruler of Sheba (v. 10) among the poor, rather than hoarding it in the royal treasury. A truly exemplary people’s monarch! (The alternative interpretation is that this refers to gold that God will have given to him.)

A brief note about the semantic field of the words tzedakah and mishpat. These are usually translated, respectively, as the abstract noun “righteousness,” and as “judgment,” in the sense of the legal function of a judge. But these words often bear an additional connotation in the Bible, particularly in the poetic books, such as the Later Prophets and the Psalms: namely, that of “vindication”—e.g., when God wages war against evildoers or the enemies of Israel he “does tzedakah”; and what we would call today “proactive” social justice—that is, not only does he rule between litigants who come to court to resolve a dispute, but he actively corrects social ills, rectifying the oppression and exploitation of the weak and defenseless. (See Moshe Weinfeld’s important book on this topic, which discusses these concepts in an overall ancient Near Eastern context: Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995).

Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik, in his seminal essay Halakhic Man, quotes his grandfather, Rav Hayyim of Brisk, defining the function of the rabbi as follows: “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor” (p. 91).

Indeed, in addition to featuring the word mishpat in its title, our parsha contains a number of important laws emphasizing the need to perform justice to the poor. See, for example, the injunctions against oppressing the stranger, the widow or the orphan in Exod 22: 20-26, because God is especially close to these unfortunates, hearing their cries (note the three-fold use of emphatic, doubled verbs in v. 22:

אם ענה תענה אותו כי אם צעק יצעק אלי שמע אשמע צעקתו
and the assurance that the Divine wrath is ignited specifically by such injustice. Likewise, the injunction to a creditor not to act cruelly to those who have borrowed money, nor to exploit his superior position by holding on to his pledge and thereby denying the debtor a necessary item, e.g., a garment needed to keep warm at night, is based in God’s words “I will hear, for I am compassionate.” The law protecting a seduced virgin from abandonment by her seducer (22:15-16), or that limiting the servitude of female maidservants, as opposed to the conditions for manservants (21:7-11), also seem designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Many other examples could be added.

Turning to the larger issues raised by this psalm: the basic problem with all positions of authority—be it monarchy, autocracy (such as those with which several of the countries in our region are ”blessed,” with life-long “presidents”) or even, I dare say, constitutional democracies—is that rule over others almost inevitably brings in its wake the desire for even more power, along with corruption, exploitation of position for personal benefits, etc. All of this has been a part of human nature since time immemorial. It may be experienced in microcosm in the workplace, in families, in voluntary organizations, even in synagogues. The desire to be a “big fish” even in the tiniest of ponds or, as Pirkei Avot puts it, a “head of foxes” rather than a “tail among lions,” is irresistible for some. And it is as of sacred power and authority as it is of the secular: all religions, including Judaism, seem to attract to their clergy—in addition to sincere, decent, spiritual individuals—a certain number of people for whom the quest for the holy and the desire to share the Truth with the faithful is no more than a thin mask over the lure of the opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Even the cloak of asceticism, even modesty and self-effacement, can serve as guise for a kind of inverted arrogance. Our psalm, with its emphasis on the king as “father of the orphans” and the one responsible for defending the poor, the needy, the oppressed and downtrodden, suggests an ideal of simplicity and modesty on the part of the leader. His great power and dominion is not for himself, but is a tool for doing good, whose fruits are shared among the whole nation.

There was a time, not so long ago, when national leaders manifested this ideal of simplicity in practice. David Ben-Gurion, Menahem Begin, and others, lived with great material simplicity. This modesty, particularly at a time of scarcity and even rationing, was certainly an integral part of their moral authority: the wealth, not to mention shady financial manipulations, of today’s leaders, offers a sad contrast to that.

Today things are very different. The world seems to be ruled by millionaires, by huge conglomerates. There is a strange belief abroad that the fall of communism in the USSR somehow vindicates the most outrageous excesses of the “free economy” (which is become more and more cannabalistic, with large corporations buying out and strangling smaller operators). How can such leaders, or those beholden to them, be compassionate to the weakest members of society?

To return to our psalm: as I see it, this psalm may be read within the context of a certain tension in ancient Israel between two conceptions of government. The one was the concept of the monarchy as the ideal form of rule for the Jewish people, as described in the Torah. (Deut 17:14-20). The royal house is a blessing, the Davidic house is blessed and chosen by God, in much the same way as Israel as a whole is God’s chosen people, and Zion/Jerusalem His chosen city. The Davidic crown, along with the Temple, are thus seen as the living expression of God’s presence within Israel.

But there is also another ideal: the anti-monarchic, almost anarchistic ideal of the book of Judges and of the figure of Samuel, that “God shall be your king.” There was to be no fixed, permanent leader, still less a hereditary dynasty of kings, such as existed and exist among many nations (and not infrequently elevates unfit scions of great families to position where they do untold harm). Samuel, in his famous speech about the ”way of the king” (1 Sam 8:11-18), warns of the ceaseless material and human demands the king will make upon the people. This ideal celebrates ad hoc, charismatic leaders of the type of Gideon—who also knew when to step down and return to the obscurity of his ancestral home. Martin Buber has written about this extensively in several books (The Kingship of God, The Prophetic Faith, Moses, and the Hebrew essays on the Bible collected in Darko shel Miqra).

Perhaps our psalm may be read as a kind of synthesis of these two ideals: a Davidic king, but one so deeply impressed with the ethical ideal of ensuring “righteousness and justice,” i.e., to vindicate and watch over the poor and unfortunate, that he will not fall into the trap of self-satisfaction and greed. There is another dialectic involved in this issue. Between the two extremes of anarchy and tyranny, there is an approach within Hazal that government is a kind of necessary evil, because “without its fear, each man would swallow up his neighbor.” That is, the ideal of anarchy may seem tempting and charming, conjuring up images of a new England town meeting or a kibbutz general meeting. But in reality the alternative is likely to be, not benevolent anarchy, but chaos and the rule of the strong over the weak— theft, rapine, and murder in broad daylight. “Each man is a wolf to his fellows.” (As demonstrated by present-day Iraq. Bush—and, Republican readers, pardon my bluntness, but I can call him nothing else—the fool, and his court jesters thought that peace and tranquility and democracy would reign in the Land of the Two Rivers, ancient symbol of fertility and plenty, if only Saddam were eliminated. Ha!) Hence, the ”mainstream” of Jewish political thought, if one can speak of such a thing, decided against Shmuel and Gideon and reached the sober, pessimistic conclusion that a strong, well-managed government is preferable to the holy anarchy and radical dialogic freedom of a Buber (As noted, the etymological meaning of “utopia” is “no place”).

Perhaps this point has some bearing on the vociferous debate being waged at present [Winter 2005] in Israel over the subject of civil disobedience. Unlike many voices being heard today, I believe that civil disobedience in and of itself is morally and philosophically justified; the assertion that democracy implies that the state is the ultimate source of morality is untenable, and if pushed to its logical conclusion is very close to a kind of fascist mode of thought; ultimately, the individual is morally responsible for his actions, and must act in accordance with his conscience (whether this is governed by abstract moral principles or the theocentric imperative of the halakhah). Perhaps I am swayed by memories of the glorious days of my youth, when the Anti-War movement in America—perhaps the greatest movement of civil disobedience during the latter half of the twentieth century—brought the greatest power in the world to its knees.

However—and this is the crux of the matter—the moral claim of civil disobedience is not what is at issue here. “Returning” the mandate for decision–making to the individual, or to an extra–parliamentary source of authority (such as the rabbanim of the settlers movement) must be weighed against the dangers posed by anarchy. And, in a small, beleaguered country like Israel, which has already suffered too many traumas, the risks involved far outweigh the benefits of untrammeled freedom of conscience.

Closing Note: At times, I wonder whether the time has not come to add a special prayer to Birkat ha-Mishpat, the eleventh blessing of the weekday Amidah. We pray there for the restoration of our judges “as of old,” and for God alone to rule over us “with love and compassion, with righteousness and justice.” What the State of Israel lacks today, as a pre-or non-messianic Jewish state, perhaps more than anything else, is ethical leaders —including religious leaders whose love for Torah extends, not only to the realm of ritual matters, not only to institutions of Torah study, and not only to the clumps of soil of Eretz Yisrael, but to the suffering of the poor, unfortunate, simple people who populate this land. Someone, with greater poetic inspiration and Hebrew style than myself, should write a yehi ratzon, to be added to the above mentioned blessing, in which we call upon God that our leaders be filled with a burning desire for justice, with a passion for righting wrongs. To paraphrase a very old maxim: Hallevai, Would that their fear of God, and their love of the common people, were to equal their fear of the party centrum and apparatchiks and their deep, abiding love for their seats and their perks.


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