Thursday, October 12, 2006

Simhat Torah (Psalms)

A Kind of a Hadran: Psalm 1

Just as on Simhat Torah we read the very end of the Torah and then turn back to its beginning, it seemed that it would be appropriate to end this series on the Psalms with a few words tying together the very last and very first psalm. Psalm 150, which we discussed not so many weeks ago (Ekev), comes at the end of a series of psalms of praise. Its key word is Halleluhu, “Praise Him,” taking us through all the various ways and instruments used to praise God through melody, ending with an ecstatic paean in which all of Creation sings His praises: “All that has breath will praise the Lord, Hallelujah!” The psalmist, overwhelmed by the greatness of God’s works, is filled with the religious impulse to do nothing but sing God’s praises, rather like the ministering angels. “Would that a man were able to pray all day long!”

Psalm 1 addresses, as it were, a rather different question: What (or who) is a good man? What is the nature of human goodness? The answer is phrased in a manner that is the very soul of simplicity: “Happy (ashrei) is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the company of scorners.” Rather, “his desire is in the Torah of the Lord, and he ponders His Torah day and night.” Unlike Psalms 15 and 112, which are veritable catalogues of the virtues that constitute the good man, we have here a very simple answer: happiness/blessedness consists in staying away from bad people (an image reinforced by the threefold parallelism of the opening verse: do not walk/stand/sit with the wicked/sinners/scorners), and in devoting oneself to God and to His Teaching. Incidentally, the word ashrei (“happy”) here and elsewhere is more or less synonymous with barukh (”blessed”); there is no dichotomy between “happiness” in some secular, personal, or material sense, and living an upright, religiously proper life of “blessing.”

The second part of the psalm, vv. 3-4, presents a pair of images to indicate the stability and solidity of a person who lives his life thus, as against the rootlessness of the evildoers: the righteous man is like a solidly planted tree, nourished by subterranean roots, giving its fruit in due time, whose leaf does not wither, while the wicked are like chaff, blown around in the wind. The psalm then concludes by stating that God will draw a sharp distinction between the lot of the wicked and that of the righteous.

Interestingly, in his study on the Fifth Book of the Psalter, Michael Goulder notes an internal parallelism in the structure of Pss 105-150, and suggests that Psalm 119, the eight-fold acrostic in praise of the Law, which seemingly stands unique and alone, in fact has a “partner” in Psalm 1, the Psalter thus forming a kind of grand closed circle, “whose end is rooted in its beginning and its beginning in its end.” In fact, 1 and 119 are among the few psalms that explicitly refer to the Torah by name; the only other that comes to mind is Psalm 19, which contrasts God’s works in nature {“the heavens tell the praise of the Lord”) and in the Torah (“the Torah of God is perfect…”). Interestingly enough, Pss 1 and 119 also both begin with the word ashrei, “happy” or “blessed.”

Turning back from the lyrical ecstasy of 150 to the sober piety and ethics of Psalm 1, I am strangely reminded of what I once heard described as the two basic themes of Hasidism: the mystical feeling that “everything is God” (Habad) and the ethical imperative that “one needs to work on oneself,” that simply becoming a mensch is the a lifelong job (Psyshcha). This is also the message of the final chapter of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: the “knowledge of God” that is the ultimate, involves both philosophical knowledge of theology, and the turning back into the world “to do justice and righteousness”—in brief, being a good, decent human being.


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