Monday, March 2, 2009

Finding Fortune Part 2

Intensification is a powerful poetic tool used quite often in Biblical poetry. According to Bible scholar Dr. Robert Alter, verses in the Torah which create a parallelism in the second stanza are involved in an intensifying of the message (see Mercer’s Dictionary of the Bible, page 698). It engages the reader, heightens the drama and intensifies the message. The idea presented is that when we enhance a message and emphasize, it resonates with us and we internalize it more.

It is therefore somewhat mystifying that in the first few verses of Psalms, when we would expect intensification and a strong progression, we find the exact opposite.

אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך בעצת רשעים ובדרך חטאים
לא עמד ובמושב לצים לא ישב
כי אם בתורת ה חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה

"Fortunate is the one who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of insolent; rather the Torah is his desire, meditating on it day and night."

First off, the praise of the individual is all in the negative—fortunate is he who did not… why not simply write “fortunate is the one who walked with righteous, stood with pious? Secondly, the reverse progression of walking, standing, sitting and finally meditating presents us with a feeling of paralysis. Is the praise upon the individual who does nothing??

Perhaps the two points converge; the average person wakes up and, as the day begins, is bombarded by unplanned movement; such activities void of premeditation are a breeding ground for sin. Without considering, the temptation of joining the group, hanging out, standing around—whether it is a water cooler at the office, or outside the sanctuary during the sermon, sitting at the coffee house or talking with friends at recess—is quite formidable. Indeed, many of us are so busy in our lives that we might fail to consider the steps we take and the company in which we find ourselves. This leads to an existence that is extremely busy, filled with activity, but ultimately uninspired.

The psalmist recognized the struggle of the average person who just has to go with the flow in order to end up far from the righteous path, therefore the praise is in the negative, acknowledging the strength of the one who stayed away from the most natural and least taxing action.

The fortunate soul has already passed on the sinning group walking, veered from the people standing around and speaking lashon hara, and chosen to reject the frivolous activities of the seated assembly. That person thought things through, that individual found strength in the attitude of Torah as his/her delight, meditating upon it day and night. The intellectual experience of the fortunate ones determines the nature of their day’s endeavors.

Judaism certainly believes in taking action. Immobility is an unhealthy life philosophy; however when it comes to choosing a course of action for our day, the psalm comes to reward us for thinking first, acting upon those thoughts and ultimately choosing the right direction in our lives.