Sunday, April 30, 2006

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Psalms)

Psalm 126: “… We were as Dreamers”

The 126th psalm, recited or sung as the introduction to Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals) on every Shabbat and festival day, is the obvious choice for Israel’s Independence Day. Indeed, the official liturgy for the day has the worshippers singing this psalm to the melody of Hatikvah at the end of the Evening Service.

The six verses of this psalm are concerned with the subjective reaction of the people at the time of the Return to Zion following the Babylonian Exile: the analogy to the modern renascence needs no elaboration. “When God turned the captivity of Zion we were like dreamers.” The nations themselves, upon seeing the great thing that had happened to them, also acknowledged this as a kind of vindication in God’s eyes. The other verses use two principal metaphors to indicate the unexpected nature of this restoration, a complete turnabout and reversal of fortunes. The first: the streams in the Negev (v. 4); second, the “sowers in tears” who shall reap in joy (vv 5-6).

Notwithstanding the familiarity of this psalm, and its seemingly straightforward nature, there are a number of linguistic and other difficulties. The very first verse raises two questions: does the phrase shivat zion come from the root shuv, “to return”—i.e., “when the Lord turned about the turning of Zion”; or from shavah, “to take captive,” its sense being, “when the Lord returned the captives of Zion.” Second, does the phrase ke-holmim, “as dreamers,” refer to the starry-eyed wonder of those that returned (“this is so wonderful it has to be a dream”), or that, in retrospect, all that was suffered in Exile seems like an horrible, phantasmagoric nightmare? Or does the word come from the alternate meaning of hlm, to recuperate or recover from an illness, to become strong?

As for the riverbed image in verse 4: unlike North American river systems, Israel, especially in its southern desert, is filled with deep, narrow, dry river beds, wadis, which suddenly fill up with water when there is rainfall, even dozens of miles away, flowing with great force. It is an impressive sight, an apt metaphor for an abrupt change in fortune—but also dangerous: almost every winter one hears of at least one or two hikers, caught unexpectedly at the bottom of these canyons, who are drowned.

Be that as it may, this psalm well expresses the experience of the Jewish people in the twentieth century—if not more so. Those returning from Exile in those days had been gone for seventy years, or possible less; there were old men who still remembered the First Temple, to which they invidiously compared the new one. The modern Return followed an exile of nearly two millennia, during which hardly a single Jewish community remained intact in one place, but was moved about from place to place, suffering pogroms, crusades, expulsions, forced conscriptions, and finally the European Holocaust. Indeed, “we were as dreamers.”

Many of us belong to a new generation, “who knew not Joseph”—those born after ’48, or who were toddlers or small children at the time, who never knew a world without a State of Israel. For us, it is difficult to appreciate the radical nature of the change brought about by its creation. It is human nature to emphasize the negative, to criticize, and to seek to correct failings. The State of Israel, like any state, has its share of shortcomings—sharp conflicts among various groups within society, whether on a religious, ethnic, ideological, or socio-economic basis; widespread corruption; arrogance of the wealthy and powerful; contempt for law; mediocre leadership; etc. (But perhaps this last is rather subjective: the older one gets, the smaller contemporary leaders seem in comparison to those of one’s youth, who somehow seem larger than life). All this, not to mention Israel’s difficult international situation, its relative isolation in the community of nations, and the ongoing Palestinian problem. The triumph of ’67 has turned sour, seeming to have created more problems than it solved. But Yom ha-Atzmaut is a time for sitting back, counting our collective blessings, and remembering the profoundly positive impact the State has had on world Jewry from a slightly longer historical perspective; to try to recapture or imagine the moment when “we were like dreamers” and to feel, with the author of the Hallel psalms, that “this is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice therein.”

I was reminded of this some months back when a Jewish-unaffiliated relative, discussing the left-wing critique of Zionist misdeeds, real and imagined, asked the question, “Why does a religion need a state anyway?” I was shocked by the sheer ignorance displayed by this person (who is not particularly young): not only did it betray obliviousness of the national component of Jewish identity; he somehow managed to forget or ignore the reality of anti-Semitism, in both Europe and the Arab world, which was the dire practical reality, to meet which Israel was created. This, not to mention his covert assumption that the liberal, democratic West, with its tolerance and acceptance of minorities, always was and always will be, nor his understandable apathy (from his viewpoint) towards mass assimilation, the covert price demanded by this political and social freedom. But more on this later on.

On Shirei ha-Ma’alot (“the Songs of Degrees”)

The psalm which we discussed above is part of a collection of fifteen consecutive psalms, Pss 120-134, all of which bear the superscription Shir ha-Ma’alot.

The actual meaning of this title is uncertain. Variously translated as “a Song of Degrees,” “a Song of Ascents,” or “A Pilgrim Song,” no one really knows what the term means or where it comes from. The Mishnah notes that there were fifteen steps in the Temple separating the Men’s Courtyard from the Women’s Courtyard, upon which the Levites stood and sang these songs during the ceremony of Water Drawing during the festival of Sukkot. Another midrash states that the title alludes to the drawing up of water from the depths. Yet another view is that the “degrees” refer to a certain musical system, in which each song is sung at a higher (or louder?) pitch than the one that precedes it, moving progressively up the scale. But unlike the Western musical scale, which has a total of twelve notes, including flats and sharps, in an octave, the thirteenth returning to the tone of the starting note (hence the 24 preludes and fugues, in major and minor key, in each of the books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier), this system has fifteen stations. Yet another view, which Amos Hakham seems to find cogent, is that the “degrees” or “steps” are key words that are repeated to link one verse to the next—a peculiar stylistic feature of many of these psalms. Finally (and this seems most plausible to me, from a common-sense viewpoint), these may have been pilgrim songs, recited by those making their festal pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, or (less likely) by the exiles returning home to Zion.

It should be noted that, in general, the Fifth Book of the Psalms (Pss 107-150) consists largely of a series of collections: the Hallel (Pss 113-118); the “Hallelujah” psalms (Pss 145 or 146-150) used in Pesukei de-Zimra; the eight-fold alphabetic psalm (Ps 119), which may be viewed as a collection of 22 separate units; the Hallel ha-Gadol (135-136); and, of course, the group of fifteen Shirei ha-Ma’alot. Unlike the first three books, the last two books, from Ps 90 on, are also far more “liturgical” and national-oriented than those that preceded them, with a preponderance of celebratory and historical psalms, and far fewer personal psalms, that are the prayer of an individual responding to an immediate existential situation of distress.

The other striking feature of these psalms is that there is an extraordinary concentration of very short psalms. An absolute majority—eight of the fifteen—are six or fewer verses in length (3 verses: 131, 133, 134; 4 vv.: 123; 5 vv.: 125, 127; 6 vv.: 126, 128): almost as many short psalms as in all the rest of the Psalter (the others are nine in toto: Pss 1, 13, 15, 23, 67, 70, 93, 100, and 117).

Having said what we can about the formal, external features of this group, what, if anything, may be said about the actual contents of this collection? Is there any common theme uniting them into a single unit? I was struck, most of all, by two themes. The first is that of the Temple: the sense of joy in going up to the Temple (fitting their designation as “Pilgrim Songs”) and related themes. Thus, we read in Ps 122: 1-2: “I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go up the House of the Lord… Our feet were standing in your gates, O Jerusalem..”; in Ps 133:1-2: “like the goodly oil… like the dew of Hermon descending upon the hills of Zion, where God has given His blessing”: in the final one in the set, Ps 134:1: “Bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand in the House of the Lord at night”; in Psalm 132, which is all about David’s wish to make a dwelling place for “the Mighty One of Jacob”; and, of course, Psalm 126 itself. The second theme is that of the sense of security, of shelter, of comfort, even of intimacy, that the psalmist feels in closeness with God. “I lift my eyes to You, like servants to their master, like a maidservant to her mistress… until You show us grace” (Ps 123:2); strikingly, “like a suckling babe at its mothers [breast], so is my soul to You (131:2); and, combining the two themes: ”Those who trust in God are like Mount Zion, that shall never be moved. Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains, and God surrounds His people forever more…” (125:2). There are also several psalms celebrating the joys of domesticity, the peace and contentment of the man whose wife is like a fruitful vine in the depths of his home, and whose sons are like olive trees around his table, or like arrows that he can take from his quiver to protect himself (127, 128). True, here and there, as in the more personal psalms of the earlier books, there are also enemies or other threats confronting the speaker, but the overall feeling tone is one of security, protection and contentment.

How are these ideas related? That the Temple is somehow “home,” the place where one feels most secure, protected, and safe (cf. Pss 27, 42, 63). Again, extending the concept of “Zion” to the entire Land of Israel, one might see here an almost classical Zionist message: that the Jew is, or ought to, feel most at home in… his homeland. Surely a suitable message with which to conclude on Yom ha-Atzmaut.


Post a Comment

<< Home