Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sukkot (Psalms)

Psalm 118: Sukkot, Hallel, and the Temple

Sukkot, known by the rabbis simply as Hag—The Festival par excellence—is the only one of the major festivals during which we recite the complete Hallel every day. And perhaps rightly so for, unlike Pesah and Shavuot, which celebrate historical associations and occur in the middle of the agricultural year, Sukkot comes at its end, and is devoted purely to thanksgiving and gratitude for the end of a bountiful, abundant year in the natural, material sense. Interestingly, one of the central mitzvot of Sukkot, the arba’ah minim is closely associated with Hallel: the lulav and etrog are held in one’s hand specifically during the reading of Hallel, while the na’anu’im, ritual wavings to the four compass points and up and down, are done while reading the last chapter of the Hallel, Psalm 118. Hence, this psalm is a fitting subject for Sukkot. (For our discussion of some of the other psalms of Hallel, see HY VI: Zot Hanukkah on Ps 113; HY VI: Beshalah on Ps 114; for Hallel Hagadol, HY VI: Pesah.)

Many psalms relate to pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, or the festive sense of holiness and closeness to God experienced in the Temple itself. This is the case of the Hallel group or groups, the “Songs of Ascent” (Shirei ha-Ma’alot; Pss 120-134), and various other psalms, particularly in Book Five. We may well imagine Psalm 118 as being sung at the high point of such a pilgrimage, following the lengthy process of coming to Jerusalem by foot, undertaking whatever purification was necessary, entering the gates of the city and, finally, entering the Temple itself and pouring out ones heart in joy to God.

The psalm opens with a festive invocation to give thanks to God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His loving-kindness is forever” (a verse which also opens Pss 107, 136, and, with a certain variation, 106; cf. Jer 33:11), including a call to three separate groups: Israel, the priesthood (“the House of Aaron”), and “those that fear the Lord”—a phrase used to refer to righteous Gentiles who accepted the Jewish monotheistic faith, but not the specific details of the mitzvot, nor Jewish ethnicity. (Incidentally, this three-fold division appears elsewhere in the Hallel and Hallel-like psalms, in Ps 115:9-11 and 135:19-20; in the latter, the phrase “the house of Levi” is included as well).

The central section of this psalm (vv. 5-18) describes the various difficulties the psalmist (or perhaps the people as a whole) has experienced and suffered to this point: “I called to the Lord in my distress (lit., from a narrow place); He answered me and set me free (lit., from a place of breadth).” He was threatened and attacked by enemies, who surrounded him like a swarm of bees—but in the end God protected him and saved him. The imagery and language here is similar to that in many of the prayers in times of personal distress such as found in the earlier parts of the Psalter, with the significant difference that here it is couched in the past tense.

An interesting feature of the poetics here is the repetition of key phrases, so much so that in almost every pair or group of one or more phrase is repeated: thus,Ha=-Shem li(“the Lord is with me…”); tov la-hasot ba-Shem(“it is good to take shelter with the Lord…”); sevavuni... beshem HaShem ki amilam(“they surrounded me… but in God’s name I will cut them off”); yemin HaShem oseh hayil(“The right hand of the Lord… does valiantly”); lo amut ki ehyeh... velamavat lo netanani(“I will not die, but live… he has not handed me over to death”); etc. So much so, that one could say that this psalm is constructed on the principle that everything has to be repeated. This may explain a rather strange custom: in the latter part of the psalm, where that rule no longer holds, verses 21-29 are each repeated twice when read in the synagogue and, in the case of verse 25, the verse is divided into two parts, each one of which is read twice (in effect, four times, as each phrase is read antiphonally, by the cantor and the congregation).

But before these verses, there are two verses in which one can literally imagine the Temple gates being opened to the festive throng—verses that also mark the transition from verses describing God’s redemptive acts in a time of trouble, to those of joyful praise: “Open the gates of righteousness, that I may enter in and praise the Lord…” (vv. 19-20). One other verse, near the end, suggests the response of those already in the Temple to the entering pilgrims: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; you are blessed from the house of the Lord” (v. 26).

This psalm, as mentioned earlier, is the setting for the na’anuim, the shaking of the lulav up and down and to the four compass points. It is interesting that the verses chosen for this act—“give thanks to the Lord for He is good…” at the beginning and end of the psalm (vv. 1, 29), and “We beseech You, O Lord, save us” (v. 25a)—express the two sides of a basic tension: between joy and thanksgiving before God for His goodness, on the one hand; and tehinah, petitionary prayer born out of neediness, existential anxiety and a sense of unnamed threats and dangers, on the other. In a sense, the entire Book of Psalms, indeed, all of Jewish prayer, if not human religious experience generally, oscillates between these two poles: the sense of being at-one with the world and with God, of God’s protective love, and of human contentment and gratitude in face of the tangible goodness of life, on the one hand; and, on the other, God’s unfathomable majesty, His distance and otherness, coupled with human creatureliness, dependence, and contingency.

In this light, it is interesting to note the Hoshanot that follow immediately (in most customs) on the heels of the Hallel: petitionary prayers, reminiscent of the tone and atmosphere of the Days of Awe. The very name, hosha’na (from which derives the English hosanna), is based upon the most direct, briefest form of the imperative: hosha’ na (“Save us, please!”).

One of the final verses reads, “Bind the festive offering to the horns of the altar with thick cords” (v. 27b). This is a difficult verse. The Mishnah in Sukkah 4.5 describes how Jews visiting the Temple would march in procession around the altar with long willow branches, with which they then adorned the altar. Upon taking leave, they would say Yofi lakh mizbaeh —“beauty onto you, O altar”— a problematic phrase that seems to equate a physical object with the Infinite Creator as an object of adulation.


Blogger mamamitzvah said...

I read with interest what you wrote about R' Shlomo and will give you the benefit of the doubt that you heard many of these things second hand. I knew R' Shlomo, as he put it, before he was Shlomo Carlebach....Our friendship spanned over 40 years. There were many inaccuracies in your brief bio. I offered to help you with this project. There is so much you told half or inaccurately. I do not know your age, but if you are too young to have kbnown Shlomo well, you should not have taken this task upon yourself. Please email me and I would be happy to help correct any misinformation in your article. The world needs to know the story of R' Shlomo, but they need to know it accurately.
With prayers for love and peacefullness.'
May we say Shema at bedtime and awaken to say Modeh Ani in Yerushalayim.

10:28 PM  

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