Friday, August 20, 2010

Ahavti--Personalizing Hallel

Hallel can be viewed as a story.

It actually begins in psalm 111 with the word, "Hallelu-yah begins with אודה את ה' (I will praise), a single voice on a quest to expand God's name in the world. He concludes תהלתו עומדת לעד (His praise exists eternally), an a to z depiction of God's greatness and his desire to praise Him eternally. Psalm 112 moves from a description of man's desire to praise—אודה— and a list of those praises, to אשרי איש ירא את ה', fortunate is the MAN who fears the Lord, which is a psalm of praise for the individual who leads a life infused with righteousness, morality and praise of God. It concludes with the ultimate reward of the individual who aims to praise God in his lifetime—תאות רשעים תאבד--the desire of the wicked (to disrupt his ways) will be terminated.
Psalm 113 continues with a synthesis of the two: הללו-יה, הללו עבדי ה' הללו את שם ה' the praising of God in the world is fused together with the one who praises Him.

With these three psalms as an introduction, psalm 114 begins with בצאת ישראל ממצרים, a praise of Israel for the exodus. I have already mentioned that an analysis of this psalm leads us to an understanding of the important realization one must have of why God changes nature at time. I also wrote about the dramatic beginning לא לנו, not for us, but for You, which we find in psalm 115.

Then we reach psalm 116—Ahavti ( I loved it when…). It represents a moment in the story when something goes wrong, a crisis develops, a depression settles. How do we deal with it? One of the exegetical problems with the psalm concerns the time at which the psalm is being recited. The first half of the psalm seems to imply there is an immediate crisis while the second half seems to imply it has passed and the psalmist is expressing gratitude about the events of the past.

Depending on which position you take you must interpret the grammar of certain parts of the psalm accordingly. This is by no means a simple translation. Be aware, every translation is an interpretation and this psalm is a clear example.

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע ה'-- אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי; וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת--וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי; צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-ה' אֶקְרָא: אָנָּה ה', מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי.
ה חַנּוּן ה' וְצַדִּיק; וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם ה'; דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי: כִּי-ה', גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת: אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי ה'-- בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר; אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד.
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי: כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב.
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַה'-- כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי.
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא; וּבְשֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא.
יד נְדָרַי, לַה' אֲשַׁלֵּם; נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי ה'-- הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו.
טז אָנָּה ה', כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ; פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה; וּבְשֵׁם ה' אֶקְרָא.
יח נְדָרַי, לַה' אֲשַׁלֵּם; נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ.
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית ה'-- בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:

1 I loved it when God would hear my voice and my supplications.
2 When He inclined His ear to me, and in my time I would call..
3 [Yet then] the pangs of death encompassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
4 But I called upon the name of God saying: 'I beseech You, O LORD, deliver my soul.'
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
6 God guards the simple ones (secrets?); I was brought low, and He saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to rest again; for the LORD has repaid you (?).
8 For You delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
9 I will walk before God in the lands of the living.
10 I trusted even when I spoke: 'I am greatly afflicted.'
11 I said in my haste: 'All men are liars.'
12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
19 In the courts of the LORD'S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Halleluyah

This psalm is often split into two sections: 1-11, and 12-19.
Let's see if the interpretation supports this division:
Until verse 8 the psalmist describes an event of crisis, a call to God and deliverance. The culmination could either be in verse 9—I shall walk before God…
Or in verse 11—all men are liars.

The problem with the second division is that it seems to leave us hanging. Why conclude with believing all men lie? What does that add to the conclusion of walking before God after having received deliverance?

Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra notes that according to the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Torah by Ptolemy) section one starts with an awkward word—ahavti-- but concludes with a positive note of 'ethalech lifnei Hashem be'artzot hachaim' (I will walk before God in the land of living). Then, states the Septuagint, section two of the psalm begins with the word He'emanti (I believed) which parallels Ahavati (I loved).

Ahavti KI yishma Ha-Shem et koli… verse 1
He'emanti KI adaber… verse 10

What we gain from this distinction is a parallelism in the psalm of both halves focusing on a time of depression and crisis and a religious reaction when deliverance came. In the first half his response is acknowledging of God's salvation, the second half goes one step beyond and asks—'ma ashiv la'HaShem' (what can I return to God?). It focuses on the vow, the neder that this individual wants to give to God as a result of the goodness which was bestowed upon him.

Repaying a vow finds expression in verse 14 and then repeated again in 18. Verse 13 which speaks of calling out in God's name parallels verse 4 using the same language. Verses 17 and 19 enforce the notion of repayment of the vow in terms of an offering in the Temple in Jerusalem.

What we emerge with is a new component of the Hallel experience. It is not simply a present day desire to praise and acknowledge God for an historical miracle bestowed upon one; It becomes more personalized, subjective and introspective. When introducing this subjective component some bitterness seeps out when recalling times of crisis and isolation.

The psalm sets out an introspective Hallel in the first section in the form of recognition and singing praise; in the second half the psalmist wants to act on the base level to heighten the religious expression by turning to action and directing oneself to Jerusalem. Through this reinforcement we appreciate a new aspect to praising God and an important component of Hallel.