David Walk
David Walk

Out of the depths, into the heights

There’s a Psalm which evokes very strong memories for most of us, because of its prominent place in our High Holiday prayers. It is recited responsively with the Ark opened before the recitation of SHMA during the 10 Days of Repentance. However, for me Psalm 130 invokes totally different memories: all night guard duty. I remember as a relatively new immigrant in Efrat during the 1980’s, twice a month I had to do the rounds of our small community. I don’t know how effective we were, but I do remember how much I pined for the sunrise. Just like verse 6 in our poem: My soul yearns for God, even more than the night guards yearn for sunrise, watching for that sunrise. And we’re just as certain in God’s compassion as we are in the inevitability of the sun’s rise in the east.  

But let’s go back to the beginning. Psalm 130 starts with a fascinating irony. This compact poem is one of the 15 Psalms which open with the phrase SHIR HAMA’ALOT, a song of the ascents. These songs describe the climb to the spiritual pinnacle which is the Temple Mount. Many authorities explain that the Leviyim sang these musical Psalms while mounting the 15 steps between the outer and inner courtyards of the BEIT HAMIKDASH. But here we are ten Psalms into this ascent, yet our Singer claims to be in the MA’AKIM, profound depths. Most probably the Singer is recalling some traumatic event. In our High Holiday prayers, we use this expression to describe our spiritual state during these Days of Awe.  

Our Psalm neatly divides into two parts. The first half (verses 1-4) is addressed directly to God, and declares that only God can solve humanity’s spiritual ills. Part two (verses 5-8) is a declaration of total faith that God will grant salvation. In each section we first have an expression of the author’s personal situation, followed by a declaration of faith in God’s help in more general terms, especially for the Jewish people.  

The most famous discussion concerning our poem is about the identification of the ‘depths’, MA’AKIM. It’s been suggested that the literal meaning of ‘depths’ is the ocean’s depths, and the author has a sense of drowning. Others suggest a prison or dungeon, like Yosef who is drawn up from a pit. But I think that it’s Rebbe Nachman who expresses the most accepted position, IMKA D’LIBA, the depths of one’s heart. The Psalmist is saying that even though I’ve sinned, in my innermost self I’m still loyal to You, O God. 

Rebbe Nachman said that this opening expression of despondence is referred to in the beginning of the our Slichot prayers, which Ashkenazim begin reciting this coming Saturday night. Our EIDOT HaMIZRACH brethren have been intoning them since Rosh Chodesh. The Breslover explained the expression ‘As beggars and supplicants we knock on Your door’ is based on our poem’s ‘cry from the depths’. But no matter how far we have fallen, we are confident that our pleas will be fulfilled. As the Slichot introduction continues: For upon Your compassion, we have faith, and upon Your grace we rely. So, the introduction of Slichot mirrors the message of our Psalm. No matter how far we have fallen, we never lose confidence in the infinite forgiveness of God. 

After begging God to pay attention to us, we acknowledge that our fate is totally dependent on God’s forgiveness. Since we all sin, it’s only God’s pardon which allows us to go on with our lives. We are emphasizing the critical word in our Psalm: SLICHA, forgiveness, exoneration. This brings us verse 5, which declares that we are anticipating God’s ‘word’ or ‘thing’, D’VARO. I’m pretty sure it’s a word, and that word is SALACHTI, I have forgiven. This expectation is the inspiration behind the most famous SLICHA prayer recited KOL NIDRE evening. 

It is this ‘expectation’ which is the focus of the second half of our Psalm. In my introductory paragraph I already described how much we anticipate this Divine clemency. Now I’d like to explain the dual nature of this expectation. Our Singer uses two terms to describe the anticipation: KIVITI and HOCHALTI. What’s the difference between them? 

The Malbim contrasts the two terms. KIVITI, ‘await’ or ‘expect’, he describes as what is happening in the soul of the individual who feels this hope. Our NESHMA is awaiting God’s grace. On the other hand, YICHUL, which can also be translated as an expectation or an anticipation, refers to the behavior and power of the object of our hope. In other words, these two terms express that our hope in God to save or forgive us is based on two factors. First our deep faith in God, and secondly in the awesome power of God to bestow salvation.  

Beginning with verse 5, there is tremendous confidence that God will forgive. This is in contrast with the beginning of the Psalm when our Singer is begging for God’s attention. Where does this newfound faith come from? Rav Soloveitchik addressed this exact issue in an essay on Teshuva, where he wrote that the difference between individual and communal confession is tremendous. ‘When the individual confesses, he does so from a state of insecurity…For what assurance has he that he will be acquitted of his sin?…In contrast, KNESSET YISRAEL confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally, before its most Beloved One.’ 

The Psalm ends with the logical extension of this faith: God will redeem Israel from all its transgressions (verse 8). But with this exuberant admission comes a caveat. The term used for ‘redeem’ is PODEH, not GO’EL. The difference (according to the Malbim) is crucial. PIDYON means that there is a price exacted for the redemption. We have never lost our total faith in the final and complete redemption, but our Singer also recognizes that our people have suffered greatly on this path. 

This stirring testimony to our national faith is a fitting component of our Ten Days of Repentance liturgy. We must endeavor to carry its message of confident belief with us all year, as we climb from the depths of despair to the heights of hope. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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