Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My name

My roommate told me I have "the name of an ars from Bat Yam"...

Tehilim 115 and 116

When you can't find your keys, often it is not because they are in an obscure place you can't think of, but because they are in such an obvious place that you think it unnecessary to look there. Something similar applies to certain parts of Tanach. We see so often in one specific context that we effectively train ourselves not to look at them from any perspective other than the usual one.

Tehillim 115 and 116 are good examples. We recite them regularly in Hallel. But in Hallel each chapter is split into two paragraphs which are said separately (and often, one half is not even said). This makes it hard for us to notice connections between the halves which would be obvious if the chapter were said all at once. In this post I would like to examine several such connections.

O Israel, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aharon, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
You that fear Hashem, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
Hashem has remembered us, He will bless:
He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aharon.
He will bless them that fear Hashem, both small and great.

Here we have a list of divisions of the Jewish people: "Israel", "the house of Aharon", and "those that fear Hashem". This list first appears in verses 9-11, where each division is asked to trust God. In the very next two verses (but in a totally separate paragraph in Hallel), the list of divisions appears again, as a list of those who God will bless.

In Hallel, we see these lists of divisions as totally separate. But reading the chapter as a whole, we see they come one after another, and the connection between them is clear. When and because we trust God, God will notice it ("Hashem has remembered us"), and bless us. Not only does the chapter discuss human behavior and Divine favor, but it connects them, thereby introducing another very important concept: that of reward and punishment.

They have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; nor do they speak with their throat.
They that make them will become like them; as will all who trust in them.
The dead do not praise Hashem, nor do any that go down into silence;
But we will bless Hashem from now and forever.

There is a certain tension in last two lines. How can you contrast righteous people with dead people, when righteous people eventually die too?

An answer may perhaps be found in the first two lines, which further explain the "death" and "silence" of verse 17. Idols are dead and silent, and idol worshippers eventually become dead and silent too. So it is not all people, but only idol worshippers who are considered "dead". In contrast, God worshippers are considered "alive" forever.

Perhaps these verses are a reference to olam haba, which for those who get it is a form of perpetual life, while other people do not get it and "die". Alternatively, the verses refer to our physical lives. Every individual must die, but the Jewish people as a whole lives and worships God forever. While idol worship may similarly persist for many generations, idolatrous life is empty of meaning, so idolaters can well be considered "dead" like their idols even while physically alive.

I said in my haste: All men are deceitful. (116:11)
My vows to Hashem I will keep, opposite His entire people. (116:14)
My vows to Hashem I will keep, opposite His entire people. (116:18)

These lines contradict each other. The speaker here has just said that all men are deceitful. By implication this includes himself. But if so, what meaning can his commitment to keep his vows have?

It seems that the resolution goes as follows. Humans by their nature are dishonest. The speaker makes an effort to leave normal human behavior by being honest.

In effect, he chooses to part company with humans and their typical ways, and associate with God and His ways instead. (This does not make the speaker a sociopath; the "entire people" makes the same choice along with him.) On the spectrum between human corruption and Divine virtue, the speaker has chosen to shift in one particular direction. We see the distancing from human weakness in one verse, and the approaching of God in another. Only by looking at both verses together can we see that these are two different ways of describing the exact same movement.