Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rosh Hashanah (Psalms)

Psalms of Majesty and Psalms of Atonement: 24, 47, 130, 32

The dialectic between transcendent majesty and fatherly compassion is also reflected in the liturgy for the Days of Awe, including the choice of psalms read on various occasions. I will not discuss any of these at length, but merely touch upon each one in brief.

Psalm 24 (which serves as the “Song for the Day” for Sunday, corresponding to the first day of creation), is read at the end of the Evening Service for Rosh Hashanah, verse by verse, in a solemn, majestic melody. “The earth is the Lord’s and its fulness; the world and its inhabitants. For He has founded it upon the seas, set it upon the flood waters.” We have here a picture of primeval Creation, with God taming the chaotic waters to establish solid earth (cf. HY VI: Noah). But this image of creative majesty is coupled with an ethical message: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord, and who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath nor sworn deceitfully…” This linking of kingship and ethics is suggestive of a natural connection, as suggested earlier, between God’s kingship and the principle of teshuvah.

The second half of the psalm depicts the opening of the “eternal gates”—the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem?—to welcome in the “King of Glory,” accompanied by an antiphonal question and answer: “Who is the King of Glory?” “The Lord mighty and valiant, mighty in battle… The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.” The text suggests a royal coronation, or perhaps an annual assembly at which God was declared King, in a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance. Its recitation in the synagogue setting serves as a kind of festive conclusion to the “Coronation Night.”

A second psalm resonant with kingship is Psalm 47, read seven times in succession (!) just before the blowing of the shofar: “All the nations shall clap their hands, shouting to God with joyful song.” Here the universal motif of the recognition of God’s kingship by all the nations is explicit. It seems to me that the final verse, with its reference to “the people of the God of Abraham,” may be read as referring, not only to the Jews, but to all those who accept “the God of Abraham”—that is, who accept the basic Abrahamic message of the one, unique God, source of ethics and goodness, even without specifically belonging to the people of Abraham. All this is in sharp contrast to Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord,” which introduces the main section of the Morning Service on each of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, chanted in a plaintiff, poignant melody. This brief psalm is a simple invocation of God’s mercies. We throw ourselves upon His compassion, asking Him to forgive us. “If you were to count sins, O Yah, who can stand?!… For with You is forgiveness, that You may be held in awe.” There is no talk here of teshuvah, because the prevailing sense is one of human inadequacy and that, ultimately, perfect or complete teshuvah is so rare as to be tantamount to non-existent—and hence there is no option but to ask God to “redeem Israel from all their iniquities.”

Finally, Psalm 32 which, according to the tradition of the Gaon of Vilna observed by many in Jerusalem, is the psalm for Yom Kippur: “Happy is He whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered up.” In contrast to Psalm 51 (see HY VI: Ki Tavo), this psalm does not dwell upon the process of teshuvah, but speaks mostly of forgiveness, of trust in God, of the anguish of knowing he has sinned. Life is pictured here, not so much in terms of human waywardness and return, but in terms of the waxing and waning of the relationship with God: sin alienates man from God, and this alienation, even if it is the result of the person’s own misdoing, is so painful, that prayer “for a time when He may be found” is his best hope.

Between Kingship and Forgiveness

A well-know midrash (Lev. Rabbah 29.3) speaks of God ascending the Throne of Stern Judgment on Rosh Hashanah and then, after the Jewish people blow the shofar in the synagogues, “He rises from the Throne of Judgment and seats Himself on the Throne of Mercy.” The Sefat Emet, in a fascinating teaching (Rosh Hashanah 5641, s.v. itta), connects this with another midrashic theme, which speaks of God doing something analogous when He created the universe: He originally intended to create it through the attribute of Strict Judgment but, when He saw that this was too harsh and the world could not stand it, he admixed it with the attribute of Mercy. What is all this all about?

Hasidim speak of Rosh Hashanah as “Coronation Night”—a night when Jews crown God as king and ruler. The liturgy for the day is filled with majesty: the solemn intonation of the word Ha-Melekh at the beginning of Shaharit; the middle blessings of Musaf, which center upon Malkhuyot; the shofar sounding itself; the piyyutim, the liturgical poems, with their endless variations on this theme; and, perhaps most impressive, the expanded third blessing of the Amidah, ending with the doubly potent formula, Ha-Melekh ha-Kadosh, “the Holy King,” combining the grandeur of majesty, of rulership, of authority and of power, with the awesome mystery and sense of unbridgeable distance between man and the Holy One. One is reminded by this of the epithet used by the German theologian, Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy—the “Wholly Other”: God as uncanny, overwhelming, the mysterium tremendum, utterly incomprehensible to the human mind. It is this aspect of the Divine that underlies the stories of prophets and mystics who were overwhelmed by confrontation with the Divine and fell on their faces upon experiencing an epiphany of the Divine. It is this aspect that is implied by the verse “no man may see Me and live.”

Modern Jewish apologetics has tended to downplay this aspect of religious life. We are more comfortable with the “friendly,” compassionate God of midrash and folktale, who can be addressed with intimate Yiddish epithets like “Tatenyu” & “Eybishte,” who converses with man almost as a friend and equal, and whose decisions are challenged by the likes of Abraham, Moses, Job, Honi the Circle Maker, or R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Indeed, the idea of the kind and compassionate God, Av ha-Rahamim, “the Compassionate Father,“ filled with love and caring for His children, is central to Judaism in general, and to the liturgy and thought of the Days of Awe in particular.

How is the gap between these two different, nay, diametrically opposed aspects of the Divine, to be bridged?

Our Midrash gives one answer: “When Israel take their shofarot and blow before the Holy One, He rises from the Throne of Stern Judgment and sits upon the Throne of Mercy.” How so? One answer, the one most often given, is that the shofar reminds God, so to speak, of the merit of our ancestors, zekhut avot, the patriarchs who were wholly devoted to God: Abraham, the “knight of faith,” etc.

Alternatively, the performance of a mitzvah act—whether because of some special property of shofar, or simply as it being emblematic of the life of mitzvot in general—demonstrates our devotion to God. The mitzvah is that which connects between man and God (some connect it with the word tzavta, “together”), thereby bridging the gap between the two. By performing an act which expresses the conscious, deliberate desire for connection to God, man somehow changes the entire complexion of the divine attitude.

Or, a third answer: shofar as a call to teshuvah helps set in motion the whole dynamic of the Days of Awe. We begin with Malkhut: in reflecting upon God’s majesty, and his own smallness, man is filled with fear and trembling. (Note the piyyutim at the very beginning of the repetition of the Amidah, such as Yareiti biftzoti or Atiti le-hanenakh, in which the cantor declares how frightened, nay, terrified he is to open his mouth before the high and exalted God, crawling before Him like a worm or an insect!) The dominant emotion here is yirat haromemut, the sense of awe and astonishment at God’s majesty, which in turn reminds the human being of his own smallness and transience (see Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2). But more than that, this leads a person to reflect upon how, even taking into account his natural limitations as a human being, he has not been or done all he can. He is guilty of neglect of Torah and mitzvot, if not of more dire sins: at very least, he is certainly accountable for sloth, complacency, self-satisfaction, idle talk. These thoughts in turn lead to teshuvah. The idea of Divine judgment—whether understood literally as God opening an enormous set of Heavenly books with everyone’s name and fate recorded therein, or simply as a metaphor for the aspect of Divine judgment, of the infinite power, glory and majesty of the Divine—somehow elicits thoughts of contrition, of inadequacy, perhaps even of self-disgust, and of a resolve to live life in a less routine and mediocre way.

But then, as Yom Kippur approaches, something else begins to predominate. The more we turn to God, the more we realize that we are nevertheless inadequate—we know that we can never be holy “as He is holy.” We find ourselves turning to God’s mercies, as our only hope and refuge. And in fact, Yom Kippur is not a day for celebrating God’s majesty—and the distance and sternness that go with it; nor is it even, really, a day of teshuvah. Rather, as its name implies, it is a day of atonement—of mercy, of compassion, of freely-given forgiveness. “The goat sent into the wilderness atones for all sins [NB — except for the really serious ones], whether or not he did teshuvah” (Rambam, Teshuvah 1.2).

There is an interesting paradox here: Rosh Hashanah, a festival known for its sumptuous meals, with tables piled high with every conceivable kind of delicacy, is conceived as a day of strict and even harsh judgment, while Yom Kippur, when we fast and wear white and don’t indulge in any physical pleasures, is the day of mercy and love. What a strange people, these Jews!

In a very real sense, then, teshuvah and atonement are not complementary at all, but diametrically opposed moments! Or perhaps one could say that the dialectic of din and rahamim, of man acknowledging God’s majesty, His rule ever him, and his own turning, followed by atonement and forgiveness, is preordained, built into the structure of the universe. For God knows man’s inadequacies from birth, from Creation. (An amazing midrash, in Gen. Rab. 22.9, portrays Cain blaming God Himself for making him sin: “for You created my evil urge!”—and this, with no small measure of truth. Are not the sexual urge and the aggressive instinct, Eros and Thanatos, built into man’s very being, as part of his bones and sinews, of what we would today call his genetic inheritance?)

* * * * *

I conclude with wishes to all my readers for a year filled with blessings of good health, prosperity, satisfaction from children and family, of spiritual and intellectual growth, and fruitful, meaningful work, and peace to the entire House of Israel and to all the world. Ketiva ve-hatima tova le-altar be-Sefer ha-Hayyim..


Blogger Hilary said...

I am a Christian from England and I was asked to preach today about the psalms - with the title 'Clothed in Majesty'.

I have felt for a long time that we in the Christian church have lost that sense of reverence and awe that I learnt from my Orthodox Jewish college friend 40 years ago.

We tend to emphasise majesty as power and victory and treat God as a comfortable, almost cosy friend. And forget the awe and reverence due to the one God, the God of Abraham

No amount of googling, 'Psalms of majesty' gave me any back-up.

Until I found what you wrote about Rosh Hashanah, which I found I was totally in tune with and quoted today in church.

So, thank you from me and my congregation.

I shall continue to read what you have to say with keen interest.


Hilary Schofield

6:47 AM  

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