Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Shortest Psalm

The Shortest Psalm; The Grandest Message

Psalm 117 has just two verses. What can we say about a psalm consisting of just sixteen words?

א הַלְלוּ אֶת-ה', כָּל-גּוֹיִם; שַׁבְּחוּהוּ, כָּל-הָאֻמִּים.
ב כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ, חַסְדּוֹ-- וֶאֱמֶת-ה'לְעוֹלָם:

"Praise God all the peoples; laud Him all nations.
For His loving-kindness has overcome upon us; and truth God, mysteriously eternal, Praise God."

There are two exegetical quandaries in this short psalm. The first is thematic; the second, semantic. The first verse offers a straightforward idyllic eschatology--a day will come when all nations will praise God. The second verse, however, presents the difficulty as it begins with the word ki--for or because. Once we attempt to provide a reason for the worlds' acknowledgment of God we tread on dangerous territory.

We find two seemingly diametrically opposing yet symbiotic components for this universal praise; the first half of the verse concerns God's chessed (loving-kindness), while the second relates to God's emet (truth).

Chessed and Emet appear countless times throughout the Torah, each one representing a different motif of Godly attributes, and consequently, human emulation.

Emet is truth, pure, absolute, black and white, unforgiving, unsympathetic, ideal.
Chessed is love, kindness, compromise, sacrifice, openness, understanding, practical, ideal.

They seem to contradict; they seem to travel in different ideological circles, perfecting opposing components of personalities.

We know each type; each one is meritorious. One pursues justice, isn't that ideal? Without that pursuit we would sink into a chaotic, vortex of relativism. Justice is blind, it speaks truth, it sees one's actions and one's consequences. A justice system is a sine qua non for God's ideal society. It is built on truth, emet and certainly the rabbinic adages that God's name is composed of emet rings true.

Chesed, on the other hand, rejects truth, blurs justice and focuses on one's heart. Forgiveness,
reconciliation, above and beyond, doing something simply for the good that comes out of it. Chesed doesn't necessarily make sense, it is a leap of faith, a shot in the dark. Chesed is what the world is built on, 'olam chesed yibane', it is the loving-kindness of creation which God fashions for imperfect man. It is the second chances, seeing the potential and overcoming the urge to act justly, truthfully.

What do we find? God is described as 'verav chesed ve'emet'--a mixture of these two contradictory attributes. Avraham pursues this idyllic admixture; Yaakov bequeaths it to his sons on his deathbed; the spies offer it to Rachav for safe haven; Shmuel acknowledges it, David writes about it, Shlomo offers it as wisdom. Chesed and emet are opposites destined to be together.

In our short psalm we nevertheless learn of the interaction of the two in the reason for universal praise of God--'ki gavar alenu chasdo'--for the chesed component overcame. It 'beat out' the emet and is most pronounced in the equation. But 've'emet Hashem, leolam'--the truth of God, that is mysteriously eternal.

The word 'olam' often translates as eternity, though sometimes is understood as hidden, or disappearing from the forefront of consciousness. 've'neelam hadavar'. The precise definition might borrow a bit from both and render the truth of God mysteriously eternal.

Perhaps a life dedicated to chesed ultimately engenders a legacy of truth for eternity. Perhaps the exact blend of the two attributes is what the psalmist praises. Either way, this duo is the wellspring from which we sing out our ubiquitous praise--'hodu l'Hashem ki tov, ki leolam chasdo'.