Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Behar (Psalms)

Psalm 67: An All Purpose Mystical Psalm

This is the season for mystical numbers: seven, seven times seven, and one more, making fifty. We are in the very midst of the season of Sefirat ha-Omer, during which we count the seven times seven days from Pesah to Shavuot, reliving the physical and spiritual passage of our ancestors from Egypt to Sinai: a counting which in many rites is accompanied by various mystical recitations based upon the permutations and combinations of seven by seven. This week’s Torah portion, Behar Sinai, speaks of the six-year cycle of sowing and reaping the fruits of the Land and of the sabbatical year, when the Land rests; and the seven-times-seven cycle leading to the jubilee year, the fiftieth year when the entire social order of land-ownership, of owners and crop-sharers and renters and impoverished day laborers is revamped, all being returned as it was before the one suffered misfortune and the other struck it rich (a truly radical social program!). And last week’s parsha contains the chapter of the Torah telling of special times: the weekly Shabbat on the seventh day; the “seven whole weeks“ between the Omer offering of first grain and the fullness of its ripening; and the seven festivals celebrated during the annual cycle (see below).

It’s not surprising that during this season custom and liturgy focus upon a particular psalm that is based upon sevens and seven sevens. Excluding its title verse, Psalm 67 contains precisely seven verses, and forty-nine words; moreover, its middle verse consists of (by some methods of counting) 49 letters. Indeed, this psalm, its letters creating a seven-branched candelabrum, often appears on the Shiviti plaques placed on the reader’s desk in many synagogues, as well as in the opening pages of the weekday service in many Sephardic siddurim. Indeed, it may well be the oldest example of that peculiar Jewish art form known as “mini-calligraphy.” Its use in the prayer book is ubiquitous: it is recited by Sephardim and Hasidim near the beginning of Pesukei de-Zimra on weekdays; by Sephardim, again, at Minhah on weekdays; in many nushaot in the prayers and meditations recited in conjunction with Sefirat ha-Omer; by many Ashkenazim, alongside Psalm 144, just before Ma’ariv at the end of Shabbat; and by ‘most everyone at the Blessing of the New Moon.

Amos Hakham, in his commentary, notes that this psalm’s resemblance to the menorah is not only numerological, or an invention of artists, but a literary reality as well. Its verses (again, excluding the title) are arranged in chiastic (i.e., symmetrical) form: verse 8 mirrors or parallels the ideas and key words of v. 2; v. 7 mirrors v. 3; v. 4 and v. 6 are identical; and v. 5 stand by itself, in the middle / center. Thus, a literary outline or diagram of the text of Psalm 67 looks very much like a seven-branched menorah!

But leaving aside the number mysticism it seems to invite, what is this psalm all about? It is filled with blessing and thanksgiving: it opens with a verse that might be described as a kind of distillation of the priestly blessing, invoking Divine blessing (“may God have grace upon us, bless us, shine His face upon us”), and continues with the prayer that knowledge of God will spread throughout the world, among all the nations, so that (twice in the identical words!) “Peoples shall praise You, O God, all peoples shall praise You.” Three times the middle verse uses words referring to the nations of the world (leumim, amim, leumim), shown here shouting in song and rejoicing in God—because He will “judge them with equity” and “guide” them. The psalm ends with a picture of the earth overflowing with the blessing of abundant fruit (a suitable theme for springtime), and that all the ends of the earth shall fear Him.

This is one of the happiest psalms of them all. There is nary a hint of tension or conflict, not to mention the evildoers and men of violence and deceit who populate so many of the pages of this slim book. Nor in truth is there any real distinction between Israel and the nations. The blessings of v. 2 apply to an unnamed “us.” In this respect this psalm is quite unusual, if not unique. Even the celebratory psalms, in which the motif of some kind of trouble or threat confronting the speaker, is absent, almost always mention the people Israel, making references to Jewish history, to the Exodus, to the Temple, to Jerusalem, Zion, etc. Or, in any event, they do not speak of the other nations acknowledging and praising God. Some of the psalms with more universal motifs celebrate God in His creative power and might, as in Ps 104, which describes the Creation, or Ps 148, in which all parts of the cosmos, above and below, praise Him, or Pss 29 and 93, which show Him triumphant and regnant over the Flood. Yet other psalms that discuss the meaning of human life per se, sub species (Pss 8, 90). The only other psalms I can think of that portray all humankind praising God are the super- short 117th Psalm, familiar from Hallel; and Psalm 47—the “Divine coronation” psalm read on Rosh Hashanah prior to the blowing of the shofar, in which all the nations clap their hands, shouting before God with joyful song—but there, a strong contrast is drawn between Israel, or “Jacob,” and the nations.

In summary, I see this psalm as almost messianic in its vision of an age in which all nations come to recognize the One God (like the peroration of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah?). But if this is an eschatological hymn, it is without the fuss and fanfare we would expect. There is something understated, natural, self-evident in the tone of this psalm—that universal knowledge of God is almost self-evident, simply how things ought to be. Can this explain the popularity of this psalm for so many liturgical occasions?

Two concluding notes: First, about the seven festival days listed in Leviticus 23. Rav Soloveitchik once cited (I forget the source) an interesting reading of the verse, “six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall cease [to labor]” (Exod 34:21]: there are six festival days on which we are allowed to perform certain restricted forms of labor not considered melekhet avodah (i.e., food preparation, as opposed to economically productive labor) so as to ease the celebration of the day—the 1st day of Pesah, 7th day of Pesah, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, 1st day of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, while the seventh day, that of total cessation of all activity, is Yom Kippur—the “Shabbat” of the festive days.

Second: an interesting example of the ubiquity of the use of the numbers 7 & 49. Even in as staunch a (seeming) rationalist as Maimonides, we can find mystical numbers as an organizing principle. Thus Leo Strauss, in his introductory essay to Pines’ translation of the Guide, in which he propounds a heavily esoteric reading of that book, divides the entire book into seven major sections and forty-nine secondary divisions. (Of course, one can well argue that this schema is more Strauss’ than Rambam’s.)


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