Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh-Zakhor (Psalms)

“As a hart longs for flowing water streams, so does my soul long for Thee, O God”: Psalms 42-43

The opening words of Psalm 42 make it a classic expression of the mystical frame of mind. The opening words, “As a hart longs for flowing water streams, so does my soul long for Thee, O God,“ seems to reflect an intense longing for a simple and direct closeness with God. Unlike many other psalms we have studied thus far, which take as their starting point the concrete situation of distress in which the author finds himself within the world of other people (which is no doubt why so many people find comfort in reading Psalms in times of personal trouble—because they can easily identify with the author), here all that exists in the world seems to be the person’s own soul and the living God. Such a sentiment is paradigmatic of the mystic—and indeed, the imagery of this psalm has been taken as such, not only in Judaism, but in other Western religious traditions as well (e.g., in such Christian mystics as John of the Cross). For the person whose consciousness is focused upon the Divine, which is as real to him as the lanes of his home town, God is a palpable, tangible need, like the elemental need of a beast for water. In fact, the very next verse, “My soul thirsts for Elohim, for the living God,” serves as the opening phrase for one of the better-known religious poems of R. Abraham ibn Ezra, sung in many homes every Friday evening.

But upon reading this psalm or psalms (see below) more closely, one notices another, equally central motif: that this longing for God is inextricably linked with the subject we introduced last week—the Temple in Jerusalem, the experience of being in “the courtyards of the house of our Lord,” and specifically, in our psalm, the longing to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City. “When shall I come and behold the face of [or, better: “appear before”] God” (2b). What the psalmist seeks is not a mystical vision of the Divine face, but to present himself “before God” in His Temple. The verb ra’ah (“see”) is used here in the identical construction as that used by the Torah in describing the obligation to go up to Jerusalem on the three pilgrimage festivals (Exod 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16).

Thus, our author suffers an intense feeling of frustration because, for one reason or another, he cannot make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as he was wont in times past. We don’t know why: perhaps this was written after the Destruction of the Temple and he is far away, in Babylonia; or more likely, as suggested by the reference to “the land of the Jordan and the Hermon” (v. 5), he lived in the far northern part of country which, after 721 BCE, lived under Assyrian occupation that prevented them from going to Jerusalem. Or perhaps, as Amos Hakham (author of the excellent Psalms volumes of the Da’at Miqra series that I have been using extensively) says in the name of his father, he may have been a member of the ten tribes during the period after the secession from Judah who remained loyal to Zion and did not accept the substitute altars built by Jeroboam in Dan and Bethel. I would like to note here that it seems likely that Psalms 42 and 43 are in fact one psalm. The latter has no heading, but simply continues where 42:12 leaves off; more important, there is a common refrain repeated three times, with only the smallest changes. The idea that these two psalms were written as one is supported by Hakham, by the NJPS translation, by certain Sephardic manuscripts, and more. (Hakham also sees Pss 111-112, 113-114, and 1-2 as belonging together one; but the case is strongest here)

The psalm as a whole may be read as an internal dialogue within the author’s soul, in which he alternates between despair and hope. The repeated refrain in 42:6, 12 and 43:3: “Why are you cast down my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, my help and my God,” itself exemplifies this: the author sounds as though he is trying to talk himself out of his despair and depression, to remind himself that “a better day is coming” and he will yet be able to praise God in Jerusalem.

The psalm is divided into three sections, which could be described as rising and falling waves of emotion. In 42:1-6, following the first verses, that outline his basic dilemma and longing, he complains about those who mock him for his faith, taunting him with the words “where is your god” (v 4, and again in v. 11), and recalls the exhilaration he used to feel when visiting the House of God amidst the happy throng. In the second section, vv. 7-12, the sound of rushing waters of his native upper Jordan valley awakens a sense of melancholy, as if he feels himself inundated and overcome by their swift current—and in despair he addresses God, his Rock, with the words, “Why have you forgotten me?” In Psalm 43, which constitutes the third part of this same psalm, he is more optimistic. He trusts that God will vindicate him, praying that He will take him to His holy mountain. The psalm concludes, like the first part, with a scene from the Temple, but this time, rather than melancholy reminiscing of past joys, he pictures himself in a happier future. He will go to “the altar of God, to God the source of all rejoicing [simhat gili, lit. “the joy of my gladness”] and I will praise Him with the lyre.” (My wife observed that, since the superscription refers to this psalm as belonging to the school of the sons of Korah, who were Levites, it would be perfectly natural for him to play musical instruments in the Temple; indeed, that was precisely their task!) The psalm closes with the same refrain, but this time it sounds as though the mood of hope has definitively banished despair and anxiety.

I would like to emphasis two central ideas here. First, the idea of God’s Presence in the Temple. God is everywhere—but He is particularly close and accessible in His Holy Place, the sense of His presence being somehow immediate and tangible there in ways that it is not in other places—so much so that the longing for God and the longing to be at His holy mountain are almost one and the same. Second, the longing for closeness to God as a central motif. The religious impulse, the desire for religious experience, the wish to be near God, is portrayed here as a fundamental human need in and of itself. The author’s wish to be free to visit Zion is not motivated by a sense of duty, but simply by the desire to be close to God.

Psalm 22: “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?”

A time-honored, near-universal custom connects Psalm 22—“For the Choirmaster, upon Ayelet ha-Shahar, a song of David”—with Purim. But why? There is a certain paradox here: on this seemingly most joyous, carefree, even hilarious of all the holidays, we read what is arguably the most somber, sobering psalm of all the 150. The very first line following the title expresses a feeling of total abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me…” Indeed, it was not for naught that two of the Christian Evangelists, Matthew and Mark, place these words in Jesus’ mouth on the Cross (more on that below). As the psalm develops, there are repeated scenes of the author being attacked, turned upon, feeling himself physically exhausted, hopeless and helpless. His enemies are compared to dogs, bulls, lions—a veritable menagerie of “vilde khayes.”

A brief summary of the emotional flow of the psalm: the speaker begins from a position of utter abandonment and isolation, of crying out to God and not even being heard (“I cry out by day and am not answered; at night, and there is no silence [i.e., of prayer at last being answered] for me “—a verse that, incidentally, is one of the two sources invoked for the reading of the Megillah both by day and by night). And yet, he continues, he knows that God has a “record” for responding to prayer: “You are the Holy One, enthroned by the praises of Israel; our fathers trusted in You…” That is, in the past Jews have prayed to him and been answered redemptively (4-6). The author concludes that he must be unworthy: “I am a mere worm, not a man; a contemptuous and despicable person…” (7-8). Even to this point, I donlt know where else in the Psalter we encounter such extreme, intense language.

At this point, he evokes images of trust, of God protecting him in a maternal sense. He regresses, so to speak, to memories of infancy: “You extracted me from my mother’s womb, you were my trust upon my mothers breast…” (9-11). Thus, despite his present sense of distance from God, he makes one last prayer —“Don’t be distant from me, for the troubles, [they don’t keep their distance, but are] near!” He describes those surrounding him and attacking him in graphic terms, as wild animals: powerful bulls of Bashan, wild lions who tear him apart, fierce dogs. As for himself, he is utterly debilitated: he is “poured out like water, all my bones have come apart, my heart melts like wax… I am dried out like pottery, my tongue sticks to my jaw…“ (15-16). And, the final dignity, his enemies squabble over his clothes (which are surely no more than rags!) to keep as a sadistic memento—again, a motif picked up by the New Testament authors.

And once again, a second round of prayer: “come, my Strength, quickly, help me; save my soul, my unique one, from the sword” (20-22), promising to tell God’s glory to the community at large, so that they may all praise Him, knowing that He will not forego answering a poor and suffering human being. The concluding, triumphant section of the psalm (27-32) portrays both the humble people of Israel, as well as all the nations, returning to God, bowing down to Him, and acknowledging His kingship. And, in the end, the story will be told to future generations, even to the as-yet-unborn.

A few technical comments: there are at least two interesting hapax legomena (words that appear only once in the Bible, or nearly so) in this psalm. In v. 20 God is referred to as eyaluti, “my powerful one”—a word which, notwithstanding its rarity, is mentioned by Judah Halevi in the Kuzari as one of the epithets for God, His property of redemptive strength (I will enlarge on this, Gd willing, on the 7th Day of Pesah). Then, in the very next verse, the soul is referred to as yehidah, “my unique one.” This word appears only once more in this sense elsewhere in the Tanakh, in a psalm that is somewhat cognate to this, 35:17. (In Judges 11:34 the daughter of Yiftah, who rather rashly vows to offer up “the first thing that comes out of my gate to greet me,” is referred to as “his only child”; here, too, it seems to carry associations of pristine purity; she and her friends go “to bewail her virginity upon the mountains”). In later stages of Judaism, in the Midrash and even more so in the Zohar, the notion of the soul, and the idea of the existence of five different levels of the soul, is highly developed. The term yehidah, “the unique one,” is used here for the first time in such sense. For within man’s body, the soul is nothing if not unique, special, the one and only (and, in the view of many, an immanent link to “the One,” the portion of the Divine within man.)

The term used in the title, ayelet hashahar, lit., “the gazelle of the dawn,” is also interesting. First of all, it is perhaps cognate to eyaluti in verse 20: God’s strength is somehow related to a doe or gazelle. This specific word combination appears here alone. Ayelet appears in the genitive elsewhere only in Prov 5:19 (ayelet ahavim) and in Jer 14:5, referring to a gazelle who abandons her young because of thirst and drought. (The phrase is most often used to refer to the first rays of dawn, or to the morning star. A famous aggadah relates that the redemption of Israel is compared to the first rays of light, which appear only slowly and gradually—when the sky is still darkest, filled with stars, but a faint reddish hue is just visible along the eastern horizon. In addition (perhaps because of its use in Prov 5:19?), ayelet hashahar is also an obvious metaphor for a pure and beautiful woman. And indeed, in quite a few midrashim, the term is used of Esther herself.

As for its midrashic use: the main connection between Psalm 22 and Purim is in its midrashic use. Numerous midrashim about Esther, Mordecai, Ahashverosh and Haman, whether in the relevant chapter of Midrash Tehillim, in Esther Rabbah, and in the extensive Talmudic aggadah on the Megillah, mine every verse of the megillah for veins of hidden meaning, making abundant use of our psalm as a source. In addition, the central motif of this psalm: abandonment by God, followed by redemption and joyous acknowledgement of gratitude to Him, is analogous to the actual events portrayed in the megillah: sudden mortal danger, helplessness in the face of looming catastrophe, followed by redemption through “God’s mysterious and hidden ways.”

One final point. As mentioned, Christianity made much use of this psalm. It, together with Isaiah 51, provided powerful images of extremes of suffering and humiliation, which fit in with (from their viewpoint) the Christ story. As Israel Yuval has illustrated in his book Two Nations in Your Womb, without ever mentioning Christianity, medieval Jews engaged in intense counter polemics against Christianity. Thus, the midrashic reading of Psalm 22 centered around the story of the Megillah and culminating in the hanging of Haman, served as a kind of parody of the solemn tragedy and lachrymose atmosphere of the Christian reading of this psalm as being about the Passion. Moreover, through an implied parallel between Jesus and Haman, the medieval Jewish custom of burning Haman in effigy served as a clandestine outlet for feelings of hostility and desire for revenge against their very real, living oppressors (see, e.g., Yuval, Ch. 4, fn. 66; forthcoming in English). The proximity in time between Purim and Easter (as this year), makes such a reading not altogether implausible.


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