Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Matot-Masei (Psalms)

Psalm 79: Gentiles have come into Your Inheritance!

This is one of the three Sabbaths belonging to the period of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem, bein ha-metzarim (“between the straits,”), demarcated by the two fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (on fast days generally, see the posting below for 17th of Tammuz). It is thus a fitting time to focus on psalms of anger and mourning for the Destruction—which is also the archetype for all subsequent catastrophes in the life of the Jewish people. Psalm 137, “by the Rivers of Babylon,” which we will study in two weeks, on the eve of Tisha b’Av, is familiar to many, but there are a number of other such psalms as well, the most striking of which is Psalm 79.

The psalm begins with a depiction of the destruction in stark, powerful terms: “O God, Gentiles have come into Your inheritance, they have defiled Your holy tabernacle, turned Jerusalem into a heap of rubble. They have cast the corpses of your servants as food for the birds of the sky; the flesh of your pious ones to the beasts of the earth” (vv. 1-2).

What rankles is not only the ubiquitous sight of death, but the disgrace of the bodies of those slaughtered being cast aside like so much garbage, left as so much food for scavengers. The burial of the dead, with dignity and a certain degree of solemnity, regret and mourning, is among the basic expressions of human dignity in Judaism. Even executed criminals must be shown a certain consideration in death, and not be left to hang overnight, for one hanging is “a curse to God” and contaminates the land (Deut 21:22-23). Significantly, one of the curses leveled by the prophet Elijah against the notoriously evil royal couple, Ahab and Jezebeel, together with the total obliteration of any heirs to his line, is that they will not be buried, but their blood will be licked up and their flesh consumed by birds and beast (1 Kings 21:17-27).

The description continues over the next few verses, concluding with the words, “We have become a scorn to our neighbors, a source of ridicule and mockery to those around us”; and words of protest: “Howl long, O Lord, will you be furious [תאנף, a rare word] forever, your jealousy burning against us like fire?!” (vv. 4-5)—and immediately thereafter verses familiar to many of us from the Passover Seder: “Pour out your wrath against the nations that know You not…” After studying this psalm, I realized that, although I never consciously articulated this before, in that context these verses always seemed a bit odd. Why is the greatest accusation that can be brought against the Gentile nations—who actively persecuted and murdered Jews—a negative one, that “they knew You not… called not upon Your Name” (v. 6). In this context they make sense: Why, God, do You wreak Your fury against upon us, the people Israel? Why not take it out upon the Gentiles, who have never known You or prayed to You, but rather have worshipped pagan gods?

In short, the latter half of this psalm (vv. 8-13) turns to the theme of the justification of Israel, and the whole complex dynamic of the relationship between God and Israel: the cycle of sin, punishment, and reconciliation. These verses invoke the merits of Israel, and other reasons why God should cease His wrath against us: for the honor of His own Name, so that the nations may not be able to say that He does nothing (vv. 9-10); or simply out of pity for us, that we are tremendously weak and haven’t the strength to abide such punishment (“we are brought very low”; v. 8)—and not to remember our “former transgressions,” even though these surely exist (v. 8a); and that our cry is to be compared to the “groan of the prisoner” (v. 11). The last two verses contain a plea, once again, to visit justly deserved punishment and vengeance upon our neighbors (v. 12), and ends on an upbeat note: that we are “Your people and the flock that You shepherd” and the assurance that we will then thank God and constantly tell His praises.

Returning to verse 5: “Why, O Lord, shall You be furious forever?!” On many occasions, Rav Soloveitchik mentioned that Tisha b’Av is a time when the Jewish people has unique permission to challenge God, to ask the basic questions of theodicy—Why, O God, have You done this? Why do you allow such catastrophes, destroying scores, hundreds, thousands, millions of innocent lives, often in cruel, painful, inhuman ways, to happen? These are questions for which there are no answers, but even the most pious person cannot simply accept obscenities like the Holocaust meekly, obsequiously, without a murmur of protest.

Comparing this psalm with Psalm 137, I am reminded of the work of the thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who developed a typology of the various stages through which people deal with their own death: from denial, through challenging and protesting, to bargaining, depression, and ending with resignation, acceptance, and mourning the end of life. On the whole, one might say that Psalm 79 corresponds to the stage of anger, of railing against the injustice of the Destruction (and as such, indeed, appropriate for the initial stage of the three weeks), whereas Psalm 137 is more mellow, pervaded with a kind of quiet, mournful sadness, of reconciliation to what has happened.

But on another level, the two types of tragedy are not at all commensurate: whereas individual human beings are mortal, and inevitably overtaken by death, whether sooner or later, we believe that “the eternity of Israel does not lie,” that Exile is followed by Redemption as surely as night is by day, and that, as in the closing stanzas of the selihah Atanu lekha yotzer ruhot:

We have been stiff-necked and suffered many calamities / Therefore we have been subject to plunder and mire / See, O God, and save us from disaster / May the Seventeenth of Tammuz be turned about to joy and gladnss . Hearken, You who dwell on High / and gather our scattered ones from the ends of the earth / Say to Zion, “Arise!” / And may the Seventeenth of Tammuz be turned into a day of salvation and comfort.

Psalm 74: “Why, O God, have you rejected us forever?!”

We now turn to another psalm portraying the catastrophe that befell the Jewish people upon the Destruction of the Temple, one suggested for the first of the four statutory fast days, the Tenth of Tevet. Psalm 74 begins, “Why, O God, have you rejected us forever; why does Your anger fume against the flock You have tended?” Many of its themes are similar to those of Psalm 79, which we studied last week: protest against the injustice involved in God allowing destruction to be wrought against the Holy Temple; the profanation of God’s name caused by the fact that enemies are permitted to invade its precincts and do within it as they will; and an invocation to God to manifest His power, as he did in days of yore.

The language here is far more difficult than that of Psalm 79. There are many syntactic difficulties, quite a few rare or unique words, quite some interesting and unexpected images and linguistic constructions. Thus, for example: verses 5-6 depict the enemies “raising their axes” against the Temple, like woodsmen felling trees in a forest, hacking away at its sevakh-etz, variously interpreted as a gnarled tree trunk, lattice-work, or its carved work.

The use of the word mo’ed in vv. 4 and 8 refers, not to sacred or appointed times, as in the usage familiar from Lev 23, but to God’s sacred place—if you will, a kind of inversion of A. J. Heschel’s description of Shabbat has “a Temple in time.” The root meaning of this word is “to set aside, assign, appoint” or “to rendezvous”—thus, it may refer to any place, time, or person set apart for an encounter, especially one of an intimate nature. (Thus also a woman intended for marriage, as in Exod 21:8-9. Is it mere coincidence that the word “to know,” is an inversion of the same two consonant sounds as those of the root of this word,(yada‘/ ya‘ad)?) Theologically speaking, special times, such as the Shabbat, and special places, such as the Temple, ultimately serve the same end: the meeting between God and Man. Thus, in our psalm various forms of the word mo’ed—mo’adekah or mo’adei el—are used to refer to the Sanctuary, in a kind of contraction of the familiar ohel mo’ed, “Tent of Meeting.”

Verses 13-17 form part of the medley of verses used, in the introductory part of the Selihot recited before the Days of Awe, to celebrate God’s greatness and power. “You divided the sea with Your power / You smashed the heads of the monsters upon the waters … You split open springs and brooks / You dried up the mighty rivers / Yours is day and Yours is night… You set the boundaries of the earth / summer and winter You made.” But in their context, we see that these verses serve a function as part of the pleading with God: Why don’t You show Your power as You did in ancient days? For even though, “You, O God, have been my king as of old” (v. 12), nowadays “We have not seen any of our signs / there is no longer any prophet / no one knows for how long” (v. 9).

The specific identity of the miracles referred to here are open to interpretation. Some say they allude to the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, Egypt being known as “serpent” and “dragon,” while others refer it back to ante-deluvian times—the mythical battles with the great monsters, Leviathan and Tanin, and the subduing of the primeval waters (or their personification in the prince called Yam) that threatened to inundate the newly-created world in chaos.

The psalm ends with a heartfelt prayer that God not allow the poor and miserable supplicant to go away shamed or empty-handed, that He remember the covenant with the Fathers, and revenge the “voice of the enemies.”

For Whom Does the New Moon Atone?

A famous midrash states that the “sin offering for the Lord” offered on the New Moon is brought, not to God, like most offerings, but on behalf of God. God, so to speak, asks forgiveness “because I diminished the moon.” This is in turn seen as symbolizing all the arbitrary inequalities in the world, for which He ultimately bears responsibility: not only of sun and moon, but man and woman, Jewish people and nations of the world, rich and poor, strong and weak; or even, carrying it one step further, the propensity for there to be violence, injustice, suffering, etc., in the world generally. (b. Hullin 60b; b. Shavuot 9b; Gen. Rab. 6.3-4; and see our discussion in HY III: Bamidbar, posted below).

But as moving and profound and theologically interesting this idea may be, there is another side to the coin. ”No Scripture leaves its literal meaning”: that is to say, allegorical or symbolic readings of a text are in addition to, not instead of, its simple, literal meaning. The same rule certainly applies to Talmud or to liturgical texts formulated by Hazal. Hence, we must try to understand the simple sense of what Rosh Hodesh is about by analyzing its central liturgical text: the middle blessing of Musaf for Rosh Hodesh, both that recited on weekdays and that recited when it falls on Shabbat, when motifs of the two days are intertwined. “New moons You have given to your people, a time of atonement for all their generations…” This is the key phrase with which the blessing of kedushat hayom, that which defines the nature of the day, opens, just as the phrase beginning “you have given us with love…” succinctly summarizes the nature of each festival day. In the corresponding prayer for Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh, recited this Shabbat, the phrase is “Sabbaths for rest and New Moons for atonement…”

At the end of Musaf, we again refer to the unique nature of the day in a phrase known in halakhic discourse as birkat ha-yom. Thus, on Shabbat, we have “accept our rest…”; on festivals, “Give us, O Lord God, the blessings of your appointed days for joy and gladness…”; “rule over the whole world in Your glory” on Rosh Hashanah; and “forgive our sins on this Day of Atonement” on Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hodesh, the concluding passage of Musaf begins with the words “renew for us this month for…” and then proceeds to list twelve things (or thirteen, in leap years) with which we wish to be blessed. Interestingly, these phrases are identical to those used in Birkat Ha-Hodesh, the “Blessing of the New Month” recited on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh, but with one significant change: rather than concluding with the words, “for good news and glad tidings, [for rain in its time], for complete healing and speedy redemption” it concludes with the words “for wiping away of sin, forgiveness of iniquity [and atonement of transgression].”

We thus find in Rosh Hodesh an interesting tension, not only between God requiring atonement and Israel needing it, but also between a sense of atonement and sinfulness, a kind of minor Yom Kippur (indeed, some pious people observe a fast known as Yom Kippur Katan, replete with penitential prayers, just before Rosh Hodesh), on the one hand, and renewal and festivity, on the other (note the phrases relating to redemption and glad tidings in the Blessing of the New Month).

R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, in Resisei Lailah, describes Rosh Hodesh as a “muted” or “hidden” festival day: a day pregnant with hints of redemption, one pointing towards the future messianic redemption, but in a low key. Hence Hallel is recited, but only in truncated form, the so-called “Half Hallel.” Thus, too, there was an old-fashioned custom among Jewish women, being revived today by many religious feminists, to refrain from work on Rosh Hodesh, or otherwise celebrate it.

This motif of renewal seems related to the waxing of the moon, which begins anew each month on Rosh Hodesh, symbolizing the ever-present potential for renewal and rebirth. And for whom more so than for women, whose very bodies and potential for birthing are tied in with monthly cycles (the English term for these cycles, “menstruation,” is in fact derived from the Latin for “moon”).

In Biblical times, Rosh Hodesh was widely observed as a festival: descriptions in Nakh of celebrations of Rosh Hodesh are as numerous, or more so, than those of Shabbat. Thus, King Saul is shown making an important family feast every month on the new moon, so much so that absence from the feast was a major breach of royal decorum (1 Sam 20:5-6, 24-27); the Shunemite woman who goes to Elisha to save her sick child is asked by her husband “why are you going to him today; it’s neither New Moon nor Shabbat “ (2 Kgs 4:23)—implying that Rosh Hodesh was a time when it was usual to make pilgrimages to see holy men; Ezekiel 46:1 states that the inner courtyard of the future Temple will be closed during weekdays, but “on the Shabbat day it will be open, and on the day of New Moon it will be open.” Even in negative contexts, such as when the prophet Isaiah reproaches the people for being attentive to ceremonial observance without any corresponding ethical behavior, he mentions “new moons and Sabbaths” or “your new moons and your appointed days” (Isa 1:13,14) in one breath.

There remains one question: what is the precise connection between Rosh Hodesh and atonement, and for what specific types of sins does it atone. The Mishnah, at Shavuot 1.4-5, connects it with certain technical violations of the rules of purity related to the Temple and holy things. What and why, and how these connect with the world of Jewish life after the Temple, is an issue we must leave for another time.


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