Monday, April 10, 2006

Pesah (Psalms)

The Psalms for Pesah

During Pesah and the other festivals, it is the custom among many people, particularly in Jerusalem, to substitute special psalms appropriate to the occasion for the usual psalm for the day. The Siddur of the Gaon of Vilna, Ishei Yisrael, contains a list of these, including a different one for each day of Hol ha-Mo’ed; the custom was introduced in Jerusalem by the Perushim, descendants of the disciples of the Gr”a who came here at the beginning of the nineteenth century and established the “normative” Ashkenazi-Yerushalmi custom. These psalms are based upon those sung by the Levites in the Temple, as part of the procedure surrounding the daily offerings; those for ordinary days are listed in Mishnah Tamid 7.4, while those for the festivals are based in part upon Masekhet Sofrim 18 and Sukkah 55a, albeit with many changes.

The authority for this custom is thus stronger than that of the list of psalms for the Parshat ha-Shavua, of unknown provenance, which has served as a basis for our studies this year. As this latter custom is not a widespread one, we have felt free to change and substitute our own choices as seemed fit. In any event, the psalms for Pesah, with their opening words, according to the Minhag Yerushalayim—ha-Gr”a, are as follows:

1st Day of Pesah: Psalm 114—“When Israel went out of Egypt.” This is a powerful description of the miracles surrounding the Exodus, and is recited both in the regular Hallel and at the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Haggadah (see below, Beshalah).

2nd Day of Pesah: Psalm 78—“Listen, my people, to my teaching...” This is one of three historical psalms that surveys the history of Israel, focusing upon the Exodus and the events in the wilderness (see below, Bo-Va’era).

3rd Day of Pesah: Psalm 80—"Shepherd of Israel, O listen!" This is a heartfelt prayer for God to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people as He did when He took “a vine” out of Egypt.

4th Day of Pesah: Psalm 105—“Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name.” Also a lengthy historical exposition.

5th Day of Pesah, Psalm 135—“Hallelujah, Praise the name of the Lord.” The first of the two psalms that constitute the Great Hallel; recited every Shabbat in Pesukei de-Zimra (see below, Shabbat Hagadol).

6th Day of Pesah, Psalm 66—"Let the entire earth shout unto God, sing the glory of His Name.” A psalm of ecstatic praise recounting God’s redemptive acts in times both good and bad.

7th Day of Pesah: Psalm 18—“I invoke Your mercies, Lord of my strength; the Lord is my rock and salvation”). David’s song of victory thanking God for delivering him from “all his enemies and from Saul.” Parallel to 2 Samuel 22, which is the haftarah for this day (see Haftarot: Ha’azinu).

8th Day of Pesah (outside of Israel): Psalm 136—Hallel ha-Gadol, as discussed last week.

Psalm 105: “Give thanks to the Lord, Call upon His Name…”

Psalm 105, recited during Hol ha-Moed Pesah, is familiar to most people who pray regularly, as the first section of this psalm, vv. 1-15, is parallel to the opening section of Pesukei de-Zimra, 1 Chronicle 16:8-22, the opening section of the hymn of praise that David sang, together with the chief musician Asaph, when the ark of the Lord was returned from its lengthy captivity among the Philistines and placed in a special tent that served as a kind of precursor to the Temple of Solomon. The version in the Siddur continues with vv. 23-36 from that same hymn, and then continues with a medley of other biblical verses. Both the psalm here and the prayer are known by their opening words, Hodu la-Shem kir’u veshmo… (“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name, make known among the nations His great acts”).

The psalm begins with a lengthy introduction, a call to praise God, to sing to Him and to praise His name, to remember His miraculous works and to relate them to the nation of Israel, “the seed of Abraham and Jacob,” that they may tell God’s miraculous deeds to succeeding generations (vv. 1-7). The next section, also more or less introductory (vv. 8-15), speaks of the covenant God made with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, and His promise to give them the land of Canaan and to protect them, even though they were few and outnumbered. Verse 16, where our psalm diverges from its parallel in the Book of Chronicles, begins the story of the Exodus, or rather of the sojourn in Egypt, with the descent of Joseph to Egypt.

What I find interesting here is the interpretation of the series of incidents or seemingly chance circumstances that caused Joseph to descend to Egypt. These are portrayed here as being directly caused by God, with the ultimate purpose of bringing about all the events described there: “a famine was declared in the land… He sent before them a man, as a servant was Joseph sold” (vv. 16-17). Hence this psalm, or at least these verses, might be described as one of the earliest midrashim. Those things which are not explicitly stated in the Book of Genesis but at most only alluded to (as in the conversation between Joseph and his brothers after Jacob’s death, in Gen 50:20), or explicated by later midrashim and commentators, are here taken for granted as a manifestation of Divine Providence. Indeed, everything that happened to Joseph—his imprisonment, his being bound hand and foot, his experiences in the house of Potiphar with the attempted seduction and then denunciation by his master’s wife, his being called by Pharaoh and being freed from prison and his rise to become the master over all of Egypt and responsible for everything which happened there—all this is ultimately caused directly by God. Likewise, from v. 23 on, which describe how Israel and Jacob came down to Egypt, multiplied there, were very successful, and then in verse 25, where the king of Egypt turned his heart against them and caused trouble for His servants, are also painted in terms of Divine Providence.

From verse 26 on the plagues are described in great detail. Interestingly, much like the other two historical psalms (Pss 78 and 106), they are not mentioned in the same order as they are in the Torah, but rather begin with the plague of darkness and then jump back to blood, frogs, pestilence, vermin, etc., describing in particular detail the total destruction of all of Egypt’s agriculture. There is here a destructive fire that accompanied the hail—a feature not mentioned in the account in Exodus—and so on. Verses 37-41 go on to describe the miracles of the other bounty enjoyed by Israel, the silver and gold that they received from their neighbors. There is an interesting verse, that is rather different from what we read in the other psalms: “Egypt rejoiced when they went out, because their fear had fallen upon them” (v. 38): that is, the Egyptians were happy to see the back of the Israelites, notwithstanding Pharaoh’s misgivings about losing his slave laborers. In verse 39ff., we find the cloud and the pillar of fire; there is also mention of the quail, which is described here simply as a blessing of food that God sent them in the wilderness, without the plague that followed; there is also the flowing of water from the rock, but no mention of Moses disobeying God. The psalm finishes, in vv. 42-45, with a festive peroration stating that God remembered His holy word, His promise to Abraham, taking His people out with joy and with song giving them the land—and all this so that they might observe His statutes and His laws and His Torah.

Thus, the most striking thing about this psalm is its entirely upbeat character. Unlike both Psalm 78 and Psalm 106, there is not even the smallest hint of the fact that Israel was disobedient to God: there is no mention of the numerous murmurings and rebellions that occurred in the wilderness, from the Golden Calf through the spies, Korah, etc. God made a covenant with the patriarchs, and arranged things in such a way that Joseph would go down to Egypt. Even the slavery in Egypt, the collective experience of oppression, liberation from which we celebrate on Pesah, is dismissed in half a sentence: “He made His people to multiply greatly… and their [the Egyptians’] heart changed to hate His people and to plot evil against His servants” (vv. 24-25). But this is immediately followed by Moses, the plagues, and the redemption from Egypt, so that someone reading this psalm alone without the account in the Pentateuch would not know that the Israelites had been slaves for over 200 years in Egypt, that they suffered harsh taskmasters, beatings, deprivations, destruction of their family life, minimal physical conditions, and so on—but simply that they were taken into Egypt as part of a Divine plan so that they might ultimately be taken out through the desert to inherit the land of Canaan. Thus, this psalm is one of pure celebration of God’s great deeds, with neither overly much suffering on the part of the Israelites, nor their own faithlessness or doubting of their Redeemer.


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