The book of Tehillim has embedded within it a number of series of Psalms. For example, there are the 15 SHIR HaMA’ALOT (120-134), the Asaph Psalms (73-83), the HALLEL group (113-118), and there are others. But no grouping is as outstanding in the minds of Jewish daveners as the HALLELU-KA series (146-150) which concludes the book of Tehillim. These five poems stand out for many reasons, but the two most noticeable ones are: 1, They all begin and end with the term HALLELU-KA, and 2. They form the heart of our PESUKEI D’ZIMRA (verses of musical praise) service every morning. Even though they seem to have the same format, each beautiful poem has its own style and message. Over the next few weeks, we will explore them in order.
Before we get going, just one introductory remark about the term HALLELU-KA. There is a famous disagreement about this term. Most authorities see this as a command to the listeners: Praise, God! That’s wonderful and the term is definitely used that way when borrowed for Jewish prayers. On the other hand, there are also scholars who believe that this term is the technical name for certain kinds of Divine poems, very similar to L’MINATZE’ACH or MIZMOR. Personally, I prefer the former. I like this sense that the Psalmist is addressing us and demanding that we join in the praise.
This poem neatly divides into two five verse parts. The first verse sets the overall theme: Praise the Lord, O my soul! This first poem in the HALLELU-KA series is a personal adulation of God, which we are enjoined to join. It’s almost like we’re eavesdropping. The Singer then declares and promises: I will laud the Lord all my life, and sing praises to God as long as I exist (verse 2). This commitment assumes that our existence (B’ODI) is different from my life (B’CHAYAI), perhaps in another plane or dimension.
Now our Singer elaborates on why praises to God are so special. It’s not like the sycophantic praises many apply to other humans. Humans, no matter how good or powerful (NEDIVIM), aren‘t worthy of our total trust because they aren’t the true source of success (TESHUA, verse 3). They die and return to the dust, just like us, and they depart without having fulfilled all their aspirations (ESHTANOTAV, verse 4).
The first section concludes: Most fulfilling (ASHREI) is the status of those whose support is the God of Ya’akov, whose hope is in his God (verse 5). The question here is: Why Ya’akov, and not Avraham or Yitzchak? I think that it’s because most of us identify with the trials and tribulations of Ya’akov. We get this impression from the Ya’akov stories, that Ya’akov wouldn’t have lasted very long without God’s constant protection. It’s not a coincident that we sing about Ya’akov on Saturday night: Don’t be afraid, My servant Ya’akov. Most Jewish lives resemble the Perils of Ya’akov, rather than the heroic exploits of Avraham and Yitzchak, who always seemed in control of every situation.
The second half of the poem is an interesting list of Divine accomplishments: Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that exist within them (verse 6). Next, our catalogue of Godly accomplishments gets much more intimate and personal: Who safeguards truth, performs justice for the oppressed, gives bread to the poor, and God releases the constrained, the Lord gives sight to the blind, and makes the bent over stand erect. The last three items have become part of our morning blessings of thanksgiving to God upon awaking. We view these bounties as both daily personal attention from God in a metaphoric sense, as well exceptional Divine intervention for those who have really lost sight, freedom or mobility.
We now have a list of individuals who are cited as being recipients of special Divine attention. They are the Zadik, truly righteous individual; the stranger, who is often oppressed by their new society; the orphan, who has no guardian, and the widow, who often lost her financial stability in pre-modern society. Just as in Psalm 145, in our penultimate verse we make a declaration that God not only supports and protects the worthy, our Creator also destroys (warps?) the path of the wicked. The judgment side of God is not our major focus, but we should never forget that it exists.
We’ve now reached the powerful final verse in our Psalm, which presents us with a fascinating conundrum. Our verse declares: The Lord shall reign forever, your God O Tzion, from generation to generation, Hallelu-Ka! This verse appears numerous times in our services, most prominently as the culminating verse of the Kedusha, when the AMIDA is repeated by the CHAZAN.
Here’s my problem: In a regular day’s morning service, we have three doxologies (or Kedusha declarations), one during the blessings before and after Shema and the other during U’VA L’TZION toward the end of our morning service (on Shabbat and Chag this recitation is pushed off until Mincha). The first and third doxologies conclude with the final verse of the Song of the Sea: God will reign forever and ever (Shmot 15:18). Why has the custom developed to replace the famous declaration of Moshe Rabbeinu at the Sea with this verse of David’s from our Psalm? It would seem that a Torah verse should trump a Tehillim verse for this most honored place in our service.
Although there are a number answers to this question, I want to present the approach which is most meaningful to me. It’s been pointed out by many commentaries that Moshe’s verse starts with God, displaying at the Splitting of the Sea, Divine rule and control over all Creation. The events on display elicited that intense reaction. Our verse, on the other hand, is more of a request: (Please) rule over us, O God!’ With the verb first, it seems that we’re praying for something which is not yet manifest.
Now, it makes sense. In the blessing of SHEMA and in UVA L’TZIYON we’re making a declaration about the power of God. The verse from the Torah’s Song of the Sea makes perfect sense. However, the Kedusha of the Amida service is about praying for things, making requests. So, it makes perfect sense that this verse from King David is more appropriate, because God wasn’t as obvious during David’s rule as was true in the desert under Moshe. Therefore, we end Kedusha with this statement which is both a declaration of belief and a powerful request.
Psalm 146 is a very personal statement of belief and a ringing praise of God. It’s a powerful beginning to this series of praises to God, with much more to come.