Friday, April 2, 2010

Lo Lanu--Not for Us!

לא לנו—Not for Us!

Psalm 115

1 Not for us, O Lord, not for us, but rather to Your Name give honor, for Your Loving-kindness, and Your truth.
2 Why should the nations say: 'Where is now their God?'
3 But our God is in the heavens; whatever pleased Him He has done.
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
5 They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
6 They have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not;
7 They have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they with their throat.
8 They are like them, those that make them; all those who trust in them.
9 O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!
11 Those who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.

12 The Lord has remembered us, He will bless--
He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aaron.
13 He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.
14 The Lord should increase upon you more and more, you and your children.
15 Blessed are you to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
16 The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He gave to the children of men.
17 The dead will not praise the Lord, neither any that go down into silence;
18 But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for ever.

A few questions to begin:
How does this psalm flow from the previous one focusing on Exodus from Egypt? Who is the psalm's audience and what is its ultimate message?

The psalm splits into two (leading to the break in Hallel) symmetrical halves with the former invoking Israel, house of Aaron and the fearers of God (9,10,11) to trust God, while the latter invokes God to respond to the same players in blessing (12, 13). The first half makes reference to the irrationality and ultimate uselessness of engaging in idolatry with a call to segments of the population to internalize that fact and to believe that God truly assists and defends. Perhaps herein lies the continuity between the miracle theme in psalm 114 and the notion of God's protection in ours.

Why do miracles occur? In general, God lets nature take its course, lets man make his choices, his. Sometimes, in moments of intense love God changes nature. Why?

Generally, veering from natural order reflects a deserving person or nation who is worthy of this unique break in the world. It often acts as an exclamation to all that God's people are beloved and chosen.

In fact, we usually choose the story of the Exodus as the greatest proof for the 'election' of Israel. "Asher bachar banu mikol am, ve'romemanu mikol lashon" (You have chosen us from every other nation, and lifted us from every language). This message rings clear in the very nationalistic tenor of the holiday which emerges from the Hagadah narratives as well as the first song of Hallel, "betzeit Yisrael mimitzrayim". The mitzvah of retelling and re-experiencing the story of Passover is presented on two levels, a physical realm and a spiritual one (Rav and Shmuel debating in Talmud Pesachim). Both stories, though, reflect a very personal connection between God and His 'elected' nation.

However, we must always be cautious to not allow that 'election' to be misconstrued as elitism and hyper-worthiness. We must not confuse our redemption with spiritual arrogance. In fact, never once in the narrative of the Exodus story is there a reference to the worthiness of Israel. The holiday is a scathing rebuke of Egypt and its lack of God consciousness rather than a meritorious display of affection to His cherished people…"Forty ninth level of impurity"…

In this context, psalm 115 delivers a powerful intellectual blow." It's not about us!" We are confronted with humility, indeed anonymity! "Lo lanu, lo lanu! Because it was really about Your honor!" We recognize the battle waging between the King of Kings and the dark forces in the world that reject Him and we join in the mission to enlighten about truth, absolute kindness and trusting in God.

Verse 9 begins with Israel, moves to the priestly elite and then expands to all in the world who fear God to put their trust in Him. This trust is an act of blind faith for until verse 12 there is no recompense. We are left hanging on a precarious religious cliff, wondering if we have enough courage to place our faith in God without assurance of protection. This audience of Israel, Aharon and those who fear God run through the length of the Hallel psalms with the 'trust' motif in the beginning of the psalm, the 'bless' motif in the middle and the 'thank or praise' psalm at the end of the following psalm.

The psalm exhorts Israel and the elite class and all God fearing people to believe; not to take pride or pleasure in the comfort of God's zone. It reminds us all that the world might be anthropo-oriented but it is still theo-centric (to paraphrase Rav Soloveitchik). The first word (repeated) acts as a reminder to all that the gloriousness of Passover does not bequeath upon its subjects the Holy Grail but encourages them (and us) to serve God in humility and even anonymity all the while knowing that 'it is not for us but for Him'.

השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם

And yet, ultimately, the dead cannot praise Him; the land belongs to us as is the responsibility to survive, endure, ensure our future and the future of mankind. We need to follow the path through humility and trust to reach a point where:
ואנחנו נברך י-ה מעתה ועד עולם הללוי-ה we (all) will bless God from now until eternity.