Monday, September 21, 2009

The Portal

1 A Psalm of David. To David, Mizmor, The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.
2 For He founded it upon the ocean, set it on the nether-streams.
3 Who may ascend the mountain of God and who may stand in His holy place?
4 He who has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not taken My name in vain, and has not sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall carry away a blessing from the Lord, a just reward from God, his Deliverer.
6 This is the way of the generations who search for God, Jacob, selah.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, everlasting doors, that the King of glory may come in.
8 “Who is the King of glory?” God, strong and mighty, God, mighty in battle.”
9 Lift up your heads, O gates, yea, lift them up, everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in.
10 “Who then is the King of glory? God of hosts; He is the King of glory.” Selah

Psalm 24 is recited quite often throughout the liturgical year: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with great passion, as well as every Sunday morning and when we return the Torah to the ark.
What is so remarkable about this psalm that it warrants such a unique position in the Siddur?
The psalm should be divided into three distinct sections, each one focusing on another fundamental dimension of praying to God, certainly during the high holidays.

Section one should be titled: God. Plain and simple, it requires no additional components, but asks us to realize that the focus of our lives begins and ends with our creator. Hence, "To God belongs the heaven and earth, land and all its inhabitants".

Section two changes course entirely. It should be titled: Man. After all, when asking who will rise us to the mountain of God and what qulities they need you are really trying to discern the ideal traits of man.
Interesting. The first theme leads us to believe that we are reciting a psalm about God. This would be quite appropriate because isn't Rosh Hashana about God, creator of the heavns and earth? But then the second theme seems to contradict the first--it's really about us!
Which one is true?

Enter, theme three! As I gave this class I asked the group to describ the sections in one word. When I reached the third section one man hit the nail on the head and exclaimed that the third section is about the portal between God and Man. In truth, if we wanted to use one word to describe the psalm, it might be the portal. What is that gateway between human beings and the divine? What is the catalyst which engenders the heavenly relationship here on earth? Gates life up your heads the the heavens and call out that God is the Lord, King of glory, Creator of all.

Judaism is about the extreme of the extremes. Where one extreme is a theocentiic existence, devoid of physicality and human compnents, the other extreme is believing in anthropocentric--everything revolves around man, the here and now, the physical and mundane.

The psalm and the Judaism it aims to represent presents the extreme opposite of the two radical poles--effectively the center! IT is about the perfect balancing of God and Man in our world, the admixture of sacred and profane, the synthesis of physical and metaphysical.

This idea is manifest in a presentation of both God and Man, but then a conclusion with a reference to the portal--the gateway towards man developing a proper relationship with God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Asking for it ALL

Imagine you are in a literal foxhole. Bullets flying over your head and your enemy encroaching upon you. Or to be less dramatic, you are suffering a terrible slanderous campaign against your good name. Everywhere you go people look at you and smirk, having heard the vicious lies someone is spreading. You feel helpless and are filled with despair.

Precisely at this moment of impending doom, God appears and offers you one wish, what would it be? I imagine you would relate to that which has been tormenting you for the past hours, days, weeks or months. "Just help me survive" or "defeat my enemies", or "clear my name from this slander".
What wouldn't you do? Ask for too much (you don't want to be a pig right? Get off topic (stay focused on the crisis at hand, right? Wish for general niceties when you are in the midst of a specific crisis, right?

Now let's look at the middles section of psalm 27, the 'one'request.

4. One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning.
5. That He will hide me in His tabernacle on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secrecy of His tent; He will lift me up on a rock.
6. And now, my head will be raised over my enemies around me, and I will sacrifice in His tent sacrifices with joyous song; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord.

Is that all? Some commentators try to soften the blow by explaining that the 'one' main request as sitting in the house of God and from there flow all the other ramifications--"if I experience Godliness then spiritually, physically, emotionally, etc., all will fit into place for me". The question I have is how he focuses on details in the requests--hiding me in His Sukka, lifting me up on a rock, overcoming my enemies, offering in the Temple festive offerings, singing a new song... How does one reconcile all these different and disparate goals into one neat request?

Moreover, where is the 'save me from my enemy'request? Hidden somewhere in the second verse. Should it not be more prominent?

I think David is teaching us a lesson. If the psalm is about faith, then having faith means relying on God. Relying on God entails the realization that God acts with great mercy towards His loved ones. Mercy entails acting against logic, against righteousness, against reason. If David is in a crisis, is it not due to his sin and is this not his punishment? If it is, then how can he ask for a reprieve? The answer I think is that we must humbly accept the judgment of our just king, but we must also submissively ask for mercy from our loving father. They are not mutually exclusive!

Once David realizes that he can allow himself to ask for ANYTHING from God, what is stopping him from asking for EVERYTHING! If he were to beseech God for survival alone, I would see it as a lack of faith in God that He cannot provide every need for David, physical, spiritual, emotional, existential...

David steps out of himself for a moment despite the bullets flying overhead and petitions God for the greatest goals, most lofty ideals and a perfect life.

Should he have asked for anything less?

Monday, September 7, 2009

In THIS I trust

Is the first section of psalm 27 portraying a confident, faithful David? I have thought this way for many years, I now think differently. The analysis stems from one ambiguous word. בזאת, in this. To what is David referring as he concludes his firs section? Here is the text:

1 [A Psalm] of David. The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.
3 Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
If war should rise up on me, in THIS I will trust.

Commentaries abound as to what the 'this'is. Does it mean not 'this'but 'nevertheless'? (Hirsch)Or perhaps it refers to what he said beforehand--that God is his strength and salvation (Rashi, Meiri, Shlah, Amos Chacham)Ibn Ezra and Malbim round out the positions by suggesting it is the seeking of God he will presently discuss.

There are some exegetical issues to contend with in defining this word. First, does zot allow for a change from 'this' to nevertheless? A quick perusal of the Concordance shows that the vast majority of cases where zot appears it means 'this'.

If it is 'this', can it refer to that which has not yet been said? Perhaps, but one would expect the transition in the next verse to be smoother and not as abrupt as אחת שאלתי. Finally, if it refers to the faith and salvation he portrayed in the first verses we need to appreciate the polarity of faith and fear which pervades those verses.

How many times does David say that he has no fear or will not fear? How many times does he remind himself of his enemies and his impending destruction? Is this the tenor of a man overflowing with confidence? I think not.

David is not expressing confidence but the inner conflict he is experiencing in including God in his very real and practical crisis. This is not the time other-wordly illusions, it is time to fight. David struggles with his faith here, struggles to continue to believe, if not in God's impending salvation, then in God's decision to hide His face at this juncture. David battles with his inner demons and emerges victorious just by invoking God's name and bringing Him into David's realistic environment.

In THIS he will trust. In the struggle of finding the balance between confronting his problems while including God and faith in the picture. This vacillation is healthy, no extreme will be effective. Therefore the final verse teaches us a vital lesson in how to confront a harsh reality while continuing to keep God part of your vernacular and part of your life.

In THIS, we trust!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I do...

One reader commented that she wonders how I approach a psalm. How does one analyze it? What are the initial steps taken in order to develop an approach to the Mizmor? Good question. I provide the answers of my methodology in my book (which is soon to be out, Gefen Publishing, the end of this month). Here, though, are some points to consider:

There are at least five ways to approach the mizmor:

How to learn Tehillim?
A. Like Chumash with Mefarshim pasuk by pasuk
B. Read it nonstop.
C. Seeing the poetry involved and using methods gleaned from literary analysis in poetry in general and wisdom literature of Tanach in particular
D. Two dimensions: understanding the mizmor in its time, understanding the mizmor as it speaks to each individual in any time period in history.
E. Learning it as a separate part of Tanach vs. learning it as part of Siddur (the liturgy).

How to analyze a Psalm?

Start at the beginning-- Psalm 1
A. Read the entire psalm
B. Translate to the best of your ability based on your understanding of the words in Tanach. Do NOT accept one translation alone.
C. Note the title of the Mizmor, who is the author, what are the initial remarks and whether that should affect the analysis
D. Divide the mizmor into sections. Try it on your own, if not Amos Chacham always divides the sections, but you don’t have to agree with him!)write for yourself, verses_ to _ convey theme x, or can be described as___
E. Look for mini-themes in each section
F. Look at the different themes and attempt to bind them together with one general motif.
G. Determine what type of literary tools are being used by the psalmist: metaphor, repetition, parallelism, contrast, wordplay, inclusio, chiasmus, emotional vs. intellectual, chorus, use of language, tone of speech, etc.
H. Tackle hard words and phrases and understand why they are being used.
I. Search for a theme an stick with it, do not switch you will never stop…
J. Attempt to get into the mind of the author as to the reason behind the words written.
K. Attempt to glean a message for your own life.
L. [Attempt to understand why Chazal (if they did) chose this psalm to be recited by all Israel at a certain stage…]

These are some skills I have used over the years; there are of course many more which you should develop on your own. The beauty of the Psalter lies in its accessability and multi-tiered interpretive experience.