Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tisha b'Av (Psalms)

Psalm 137: “By the Rivers of Babylon…”

After the graphic descriptions of mayhem and violence, of destruction of both precious sanctuary and human lives, found in Psalms 74 and 79, which we discussed in the last two weeks, we turn, on Shabbat Hazon, to Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel—“By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept.” This is the classic psalm of Tisha b’Av, and of mourning for the Temple generally in Judaism. Some people recite this psalm prior to Birkat Hamazon on weekdays, parallel to the festive song of the Return to Zion sung on Shabbat and festival days; thus, the perpetual tension between Exile and Redemption is so-to-speak built into the mealtime liturgy. It also enjoys a prominent place at the beginning of Tikkun Hatzot, the midnight lamentation for Zion recited by the pious. Analogous to the model of responses to individual death, discussed a few weeks ago, one might say that, vis-à-vis those other psalms, there is a turn here from anger and protest to a quieter mode, one of sadness and mourning. Thus, we have here, if not acceptance, at least a certain mood of reconciliation and resignation to the reality of what has happened.

The location of this psalm within the Psalter is interesting. It is located in the Fifth Book, which consists largely of festive psalms, praising and exalting God’s great deeds and might, in tones that may well have been used in the Temple worship (but see the excursus below): specifically, it follows immediately upon the fifteen Shirei ha-Maalot, “Songs of Ascent,” a group of short psalms which seem to have been intended as pilgrimage psalms; and Pss 135-136, the festive pair described by the Talmud as “the Great Hallel” (see on these HY VI: Emor, Metzora-Pesah, respectively). Moreover, Psalms 134 and 135, which precede this closely, both end with words of blessing of/by the Lord from Zion.) As if to say: we have read / sung / prayed these psalms of praise to God in the sacred precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where they filled us with a sense of elevated, spiritual joy and wholeness. But all that is no more. Now we are sitting in Babylonia, and all we can do is weep.

In this light, it is hardly surprising that the first part of the psalm should focus upon the act of singing: “On the willow trees there, we hung up our harps… How can we sing the songs of the Lord upon a strange land?!” (vv. 2, 4). As if to say: these instruments were once used to express our joy and thanks to God, our sheer exuberance in living in this world that God created, our sense of wholeness in having a beautiful land which was our home, with a sanctuary in its center where we could worship Him. But now we cannot do so. Jerusalem and the Temple were the locus of the Shekhinah, God’s Indwelling or Presence. The act of song, certainly of sacred music, is not unrelated to place, but was somehow intimately linked to Zion: to the sense of at-home-ness, of harmony with the world, symbolized by the Land and the Temple. (It is interesting that some secular or semi-secular Zionists see the Temple Mount as a national site, and not only as a religious one; thus, the “Temple Faithful” Movement started from a nationalist ideology.) “How can we sing… upon a strange land!” Hence, we hang our harps on the trees, as useless objects.

Song = Joy, is an elementary, self-evident equation, in most if not all human cultures. Music—and its bodily counterpart, the dance—is a part of celebration most everywhere, especially at weddings. The negative counterpart, at least in Judaism, is that refraining from enjoying music is a basic custom during periods of mourning. (Exactly how strictly and extensively this applies: viz. listening to radio or recorded music during the 12 months of mourning for a parent; whether going to the concert hall, which has a different type of atmosphere, as opposed to music as part of a festive celebration, is permitted; the case of professional musicians; etc.—are practical halakhic issues, which are not our concern here; we are interested in here with underlying concepts and associations.)

The captors taunt them by asking them to “sing us the songs of Zion.” Song is something that swells up spontaneously from a sense of joy within the heart, of a person or of a community, or as part of the rituals of a culture. Being forced to sing the same songs that one has sung in contexts of joy and love, by enemies, by people who hold power over one, is an act of cruelty, of dominance. It is a particularly sadistic form of mockery, of psychological torture, precisely because of its subtlety. Interestingly, the scene portrayed here in ancient Babylonia was one that was tragically repeated at various junctures in Jewish history: in medieval Europe, Jews were forced to sing the Friday night table song, “Mah Yafit u-mah na’amt” to entertain drunken pogromists—hence the phrase, “a Mah Yafit Jew,” for one lacking in self-respect. Similarly, the Nazis forced Jewish musicians to play in makeshift bands at the infamous selections when Jews were removed from the trains at Auschwitz and sent to either death or to slave labor.

The word tolalenu in verse 3, translated “our tormenters,” is interesting. It seems to come from the root hll, an ambivalent root which can mean either “to praise” or “to mock,” depending upon the context. Due to this ambiguity, Rav Soloveitchik had the unusual custom of omitting the word vayithalal in the Kaddish, as it could be constructed as “to mock / blaspheme [God]” rather than to praise Him.

The second part of the psalm, vv. 5-6, is a solemn oath never to forget Jerusalem. The power of this oath is reinforced by it being linked, not to the usual self-imposed monetary penalty (usually, to bring an animal sacrifice to the Temple), but by cursing crucial organs of one’s body—one’s hand, or one’s mouth—if one dare to forget.

The third part of the psalm , vv. 7-9, is a curse, a prayer for vengeance and Divine retribution against the enemies who brought about all these disasters—in this respect similar to the two psalms previously studied (see, e.g., Pss 74:10-11, 18-19, 21-22; 79:6-7, 12). Note that the curse is invoked against both Edom and Babylon. Amos Hakham has suggested that this are neither synonyms of one another; nor, in terms of the original context of the psalm, can this be read as an allusion to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman Empire, which is poetically known as Edom—even though on a midrashic level, such a post facto and anachronistic reading is perfectly legitimate. Rather, he suggests, the psalmist is cursing both the perpetuators of the destruction of Zion, Babylon, and the “neutral” bystanders, the neighboring nation of Edom, who stood by and did nothing, and even egged them on (“… who said, ‘Raze it! Overturn it! Expose its very foundations!”; v. 7)—and are thus equally culpable.

The final verse is very hard to read, in the harshness and cruelty expressed therein. The author extends his curse to the infant children of the enemy, wishing them the most violent imaginable death —“Blessed is he who will seize your infants and smash them against the rock!” Hakham suggests that the abrupt end of the psalm at this point is because our author is shocked at himself. One might have expected it to have been rounded out by a prayer for restoration or with general words of praise to God, such as found in 74:23 or 79:13. But no: he is so shocked at the power of his own feelings, at the vehemence of his own hatred and venom; at the bloodthirsty cruelty which he himself, in a calmer moment, would have found repulsive, so he finds no words with which to even continue.

Excursus: Our old friend Michael Goulder (see above, HY VI: Beha’alotkha), in the fourth volume of his series of Studies in the Psalter, entitled The Psalms of the Retyrn: (Book V, Psalms 107-150) (JSOTS 258; Sheffield, 1998), notes the symmetrical structure of Book Five: the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-134) in the middle, with two parallel groups before and after (he bends his data a bit so as to include Pss 105-106 within this rubric, as do many other Bible scholars), as follows: psalms recounting Israel’s history, beginning with the word Hodu or Hallu (Pss 105-106; 135-136); the return from exile (Pss 107, 137, interpreting our psalm as depicting the Exile in retrospect); psalms and prayers of David (Pss 108-110; 138-145); alphabetic psalms (Pss 111-112; 145); and two Hallel groupings, containing the key phrase “Hallelujah” (Pss 113-118; 146-150). Note that the “super-giant” Psalm 119, in praise of Torah, is treated as sui generis and outside of this rubric. An intriguing approach, with a certain plausibility.

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A concluding theological comment: The Rav often spoke of Tisha b’Av as a day when it is permitted to ask the hard questions about God’s ways: “Why?” Now, if we say that man is made in God’s image, then the violence, the acts of cruelty, that immediately precipitated the great disasters of Jewish history are not merely expressions of human evil. If they were, then it might be possible, in our discussions of Providence or theodicy, to, if not “dismiss” them, at least see them mitigated as a by-product of free will: after all, the logic of human freedom means that man can choose evil. Even “radical evil”—like that of the Nazis, or the distorted “religious” ideology of Jihadism which so concerns the world today, which murders innocents in the name of a religious ideal—is a by-product of free will. If man were denied the freedom to do evil, his good deeds, his acts of kindness, would also not be freely chosen, and hence could not be meaningful, morally or religiously.

But I’d like to suggest an additional insight. If man is created betzelem elohim, in the “Divine image,” than the human propensity for evil is itself but the negative side of God’s own face! But how can we accept that God has such an aspect?! This, I would suggest, is the deeper dilemma that we confront on Tisha b’Av.


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