Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Psalms)

Psalm 84: “How lovely is Your dwelling place”

In Parshat Shemini (really, from the second half of Tzav, Leviticus 8 on) the Torah, after the narrative flow had been interrupted by the rules of sacrifices, resumes its account of the great festive day of dedication of the Sanctuary in the wilderness, with which the Book of Exodus concluded (there is also a darker side to this day, to which we shall return later). Among those psalms that most aptly express the fullness of joy evoked by simply being in the presence of the Divine, as afforded by the completion of the holy place, is Psalm 84.

Like Psalm 42 (see HY VI: Tetzaveh; and which, like this, is also a Korahite psalm), this psalm opens with an expression of almost mystical longing for God, and for the courtyards of the holy place which somehow provide that feeling of Presence: “My soul longs and yearns for the courtyards of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing out to the living God” (v. 3). This last phrase, together with Ps 42:3—“My soul thirsts for the living God”—compose the opening verse of Ibn Ezra’s much beloved Shabbat table hymn, Tzamah nafshi.

But this psalm is without the sense of estrangement, of distance from “the face of God,” found in Psalm 42. The word “Selah,” which indicates a pause or rest, divides this psalm into three main sections: the first part, vv. 2-5, is entirely an expression of longing for God and His Temple; vv. 6-9, which has quite a few difficult and obscure phrases, describes the actual process of going on a pilgrimage to the Temple: the setting out on the road, the points passed, and finally a brief prayer to God that his prayer will indeed be received; the concluding section, vv. 10-13, includes a prayer for God’s anointed king, and a celebration of the all-encompassing sense of goodness and joy felt simply by being in the presence of God in the Temple. Taken together, a number of scholars have suggested that this psalm, or possibly the entire series of Korahite psalms from Pss 84-88, as well as the earlier group from Pss 42-49, may have been intended originally for use during the great fall pilgrimage festival of Sukkot.

The psalmist’s longing for the Temple is compared to the sense of security felt by a person upon arriving at his home. In a striking metaphor, it sates that he says that “the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest in which to raise its chicks; but [I long for] Your altar, Lord if Hosts, my God and king” (v. 4). And, in musing about the Temple, he waxes poetic, “Happy those that dwell in Your house, they shall continually praise you.”

The second section describes the actual pilgrimage: while ascending to Jerusalem they pass through “the vale of tears” (‘Emek ha-Bakha)—not necessarily with any melancholy connotation, but simple a place name (maybe even Emek Refaim?), which is in fact a fount of blessing, as if covered with the early fresh rain (v. 7); and from there going on “from strength to strength [or perhaps: “from rampart to rampart”?, a conceivable reading of mi-hayil el hayil], awaiting God in Zion.”

The uniqueness feelings aroused by being in the holy place is epitomized in the statement that simply being in the Sanctuary for a single day is more precious than a thousand days elsewhere. Or that he would rather stand upon the threshold of the house of God, only partially within, rather than to dwell in the “tents of the wicked” (v. 11). He concludes by saying that God is our “sun and shield”—both source of strength and protection—and “happy is the man who trusts in You.”

This psalm and several of its individual verses serve an important liturgical role. The psalm as a whole is recited among Sephardic Jews as an introduction to the Afternoon Prayer, while verse 6, “Happy those that dwell in Your house…” is the opening verse to the alphabetical psalm of praise (Ps 145) recited thrice daily, serving as an introduction to prayer; the psalm as a whole is known because of this insertion as Ashrei. This liturgical use suggests a certain equation between the Temple, to which it refers in its original context, and the synagogues and study houses that serve as mikdeshei me'at, “miniature temples” or locii of holiness and of Divine presence wherever Jews live. The basic emotion is the same: longing for God, and joy in His presence.

What is the nature of this joy in being in the holy place? A few years ago, in our series of studies on midrash (HY III: Vayetze; Terumah), we wrote about the tension between God's omnipresence throughout the universe and His presence or “dwelling” in a particular place—a difficulty already expressed by Solomon in his hymn of dedication of the Temple: “For can God truly dwell upon the earth? Behold, even the highest heavens cannot contain You; how then this house that I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27). Many contemporary people, steeped in a theology of Divine transcendence and of His equal omnipresence throughout the universe, find it difficult to feel one particular place to be uniquely God’s “dwelling place.” One possible solution is to say something like the following: man, as a finite creature, cannot comprehend the infinite God in all places and all times; moreover, as a symbol making creature, he needs some concrete entity upon which to focus his experience of the Divine. The idea of particularized, specific holiness, whether in terms of holy time (Shabbat, Yom Kippur, etc.), holy place (Jerusalem, the Temple), or even of certain human beings who are somehow holy (Tzaddikim, saintly people the holiness of whose lives inevitably spawn legends), is a kind of hesed, an act of grace, that God performs, whereby He “descends” or “contracts Himself” within the “four ells” of time/space/personality in order to be accessible to man. But somehow, over and beyond the cultural and symbolic level, there does seem to be a real holiness, a sense of presence, of the numinous, in places like the Temple Mount. Also, Binyamin Uffenheimer once noted that the Temple’s function as a focus for public worship, the experience of so many people gathered as a “festive throng” (Ps 42:5), in itself elicits a sense of spiritual elevation.

But if the holy may be found in the throng, in the sacred energy of a holy community, it may also be found in solitude—in the silence of a country sunrise or sitting in meditation watching the ripples of a lake or the ever-changing motion of clouds in the sky. One thinks of the figure of Yitzhak meditating in the field, or of the Baal Shem Tov doing yihudim in the forest.

Speaking personally, I am more than a little uncomfortable about those who place too much emphasis on holy places. I find that a piety focused on the site of the Temple, for example, sooner or later flirts with violent confrontation, with doing things davka—“in the face” of the other side. I’m not concerned here so much with the political aspects, and with whether attempts to ascend the Mount are wise or unwise, good or bad for the Jews and for Israel. It is the emotions of anger aroused during such [potential] confrontations; I am reminded of a scene I experienced once on Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem one summer Friday past midnight in the mid-‘90s, during the Haredi demonstrations against that thoroughfare's opening on Shabbat. I saw faces contorted by hatred, and wondered what kind of Shabbat peace they could possibly be feeling. Surely such activities destroy the holy atmosphere of the Shabbat far more than any car could. What has that in common with the type of emotions depicted here, or in Psalm 42?

The sense of disingenuousness involved in seeking out such confrontations, of a kind of religion motivated more by anger than by love, reminds me of a famous story, told by Zen Buddhists and Hasidim alike. Two monks (or two Hasidism) were walking along a path through the forest on their way to visit their master, when they came to the banks of a river where they met a beautiful young woman, dressed in finery, who asked them to help her across so that she wouldn’t ruin her beautiful clothes. Without further ado, one of them hoisted her onto his shoulders, forded the stream, set her down on the opposite side, wished her Godspeed, and they went their separate ways. The two men walked on in silence for a number of hours; finally, the other turned to his friend and said: “I don’t understand it!! How could you do such a thing? How could you, a person whose whole life is dedicated to the holy path, who is so particular about not allowing a sinful thought to cross his mind, allow yourself to touch a woman’s body, to have her legs around your shoulders…?” The other replied: “My friend, I put her down hours ago. You’re still carrying her around in her head!”

To return to our psalm: The specific liturgical use of this psalm strongly suggests the transfer of the sense of holiness from the Temple to the synagogue. Amos Hakham notes that this psalm is easily read as expressing the feeling of “every God–fearing person who seeks God’s presence and trusts in him… The phrases, ‘Your sanctuary,’ ‘the courtyards of the Lord,’ etc., may be interpreted as the qualities of purity and holiness, faith and trust.” Unlike that of Zion, the holiness of the synagogue is clearly not inherent in the place per se, but is created by it being set aside as a place of worship with other Jews. It is analogous to the kedushah of a Torah scroll, of tefillin or mezuzah, in the sense that its holiness is lent it by an act of man himself. Indeed, apart from certain exceptional places, seen as imbued with a certain sense of the numinous, of the immanent Presence of the Divine, the true source of holiness in Judaism originates in man’s own intention. Or, as the Kotzker put it: “Where does God live? Wherever you let him in.”

Occasionally one hears secular Israelis speaking with a certain envy of Christians, of the sense of awe, of the numinous, of “holiness,” invoked by the soaring architecture of the great cathedrals of Europe or by the sonorous organ or choir music sung therein. True, Jews cannot really compete with some of the solemn High Church ceremonial of Christianity in aesthetic terms: our great synagogues tend to look pretentious and kitschy, at least to my taste, and even the Holy Temple, at least in the various scale models I’ve seen, seems lacking in grace, if not downright clunky. But such an attitude stems from a confusion of the aesthetic and the holy. The ideal synagogue is characterized by a certain intimacy, an inviting, homey feeling: for the Jew, the synagogue is a kind of second home (as in vv. 4-5 of our psalm). My ideal image of a shul is of a simple room with wood paneling, book-shelves filled with sefarim, long tables where one can sit and study, talk with a friend, or lay out food for a Kiddush after davening. Again, beautiful as certain works of Christian liturgical music may be, Jewish synagogue music is intended to be emotive, inviting the congregation to participate in song or to pour out their words before God, rather than to impress with the purity and beauty only possible in a performance by professionals. Finally, not for the synagogue the dark and gloomy light of the church, creating a pseudo-mystical feeling by an air of dimness and obscurity, with light filtered by stained-glass; rather, it is open to the clear and bright light of day, with windows open to the street, to the real world.

The holiness of the synagogue thus flows, not from a vague sense of the numinous, of the “wholly other,” but from the impression created by it being home to a congregation whose collective life is marked by fellowship of prayer, of study, and of ethics. The presence of people who give gladly to others, who welcome strangers into their homes on Shabbat and festivals, who stintlessly help a fellow in need, and who behave decently—it is this that creates a true house of God.


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