David Walk
David Walk

Praise Fit for the Occasion

According to Masechet Sofrim (chapter 18), there is an appropriate Psalm for every special Jewish celebration. Often, we add that Psalm at the end of davening, like BORCHI NAFSHI on Rosh Chodesh. According to the custom of the Vilna Gaon, this Psalm replaces the normal Psalm of the day. As many of you are aware this highlighted Psalm for Chanukah is chapter 30, MIZMOR SHIR CHANUKAT HaBAYIT L’DAVID, which almost everyone (except the followers of the Vilna Gaon) recites every morning as an introduction to our morning service. But there is so much to ponder about this choice. King David never dedicated the Temple, the poem doesn’t discuss the BEIT HaMIKDASH and the entire text seems to be about very personal issues, not a national event. 

Before we analyze the poem itself, there is one fascinating side issue. What do we mean by CHINUCH? In our poem, we seem to refer to a dedication. But we usually use this term to describe Jewish education. The Piacetzna Rebbe, Reb Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, who established himself as the greatest authority on Jewish education until his martyrdom in the Warsaw Ghetto, explained the term. He informs us that this expression really means ‘beginning’, but not just any beginning (which is HATCHALA). Like dedicating a new home (Devarim 20:5), it’s a beginning which introduces a person or thing to a new enterprise which will ultimately help define that entity. The beginning of a house as a place to raise a family and keep mitzvot. This is equally true for Jewish education. The beginning of a lifetime which follows a Jewish life style. It’s a beginning with a purpose. 

Back to our Psalm. A cursory survey of our poem leads us to the conclusion that we’re discussing an individual’s successful recovery from an illness (verse 3). This person has been raised from a precarious situation and given a new life (verse 4). Our individual felt the wrath of God even for only a minute, and then went to sleep in tears and distress. Then our protagonist arose in the AM to the joy of recovery (‘salvation’?, verse 6). Our subject was in shock over a perceived desertion by God (8). The final turnaround is accomplished through calling and beseeching God (verse 9). Our hero is overjoyed by the renewed attention from God (verse 11), rejoices over the drastic change in fortune (verse 12), and, finally, commits to praise God unceasingly, forever (verse 13). 

Fabulous! We can really identify with the pain and eventual joy of our Singer. But what’s this got to do with Chanuka or the BEIT HaMIKDASH? There are a number of authorities who deal with the problem. We’ll look at a couple. 

The Malbim presents a rare introduction to our Psalm, in which he explains: The entire Psalm was crafted to give thanks for one’s recovery from illness…It can be explained that the ‘house’ in question here is a metaphor for the body, which is the residence of the soul, and the innermost home for the person who dwells within it. For the soul is the real person, and the physical body is only a material housing for the spiritual entity to dwell in. 

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch takes the body/ house metaphor one step further and explains how all of this can be explicitly connected to the BEIT HaMIKDASH. The Table (SHULCHAN) and candelabrum (MENORAH) symbolize the physical and spiritual desires of humanity. The altar (MIZBEACH) and incense (KETORET are our attempt to give God a good feeling (NACHAT RUACH) about our intentions to do the right thing, just like we want our fellow humans to feel appreciated. The Holy Ark (ARON) reminds us of our effort to keep Torah and mitzvot, and also represents our efforts to extend warmth and love to each other. Overall, we attempt to house God in our midst, just as we want to live in harmony with our neighbors. The Holy Temple can be understood as a human’s effort to build community with our human neighbors, too. 

Prof Nachum Sarna (1923-2005), who was a professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, put our Psalm in a historical context: 

At some period, the composition was wholly reinterpreted so that the worshiper became the entire community viewed as a collective personality. The implied sickness was understood as a metaphor for a national calamity, and the remarkable recovery was construed in terms of a great experience of national deliverance followed by the joyous rededication of the Temple… (and) is the purification and rededication of the Temple in the autumn of 164 B.C.E. following the victory of Judah Maccabee over the Syro-Greeks. The events…have been celebrated by Jews ever since in the annual eight-day festival of Hanukkah. 

So, our beautiful Psalm can easily be expanded to describe our national Chanukah festival as well as King David’s recovery. However, there is one more comment I want to share. The S’fat Emet in 1893 explained that the critical word in our poem is D’LITANI (I was raised up, verse 2). Clearly this term can be explained as a description of our hero rising dramatically from his sick bed. But the Gerer Rebbe said it represents so much more.  

The word comes from DLI or bucket. The nature of a bucket is that it isn’t just raised up with life giving water. Its nature is also to be lowered in anticipation of its becoming full again and fulfilling its destiny and purpose. That’s Jewish history! Just like the angels in Ya’akov’s dream of the ladder, buckets, and Jewish fortunes go up and down, more times than an elevator. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We need to go down and search for the worthwhile items which have been overlooked by others (NITZOTZOT, ‘sparks’). The Rebbe says that why we recite this Psalm every day. 

But it also describes the big picture of Jewish history. We are brought low by Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc. Every downfall is a preparation for a rebirth, and each time that our interests are lowered into the well of history, we arise with new ideas and strength to face the next challenge which we will confront. The Chanukah story helps us to meet the test of new ideas with the confidence that our Torah is eternal and will never become obsolete. That new-fangled Greek science and philosophy was no better at overcoming life’s tribulations than our Torah. 

This great poem can indeed give inspiration to an individual facing calamity. Natan Sharansky recited it when he crossed the Bridge of Spies in Berlin to freedom. But during Chanuka, Psalm 30 also reminds us of national healing and progress as well. Chanuka Sameach!!   

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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