David Walk

Praises From Top to Bottom

The third of the Hallelu-Kah Psalms, chapter 148, is a call to the universe to join in the praise of God. We clearly have a progression going through the five final Psalms. The first (146) is a declaration that I should personally recognize the greatness of God and offer the proper praise. The second (147) announces that it is objectively good to sing hymns to God, and all people should do it. Now, our Singer calls upon the forces of nature to take up the task of exalting God. It’s actually pretty cool that we sense the entire cosmos pulsating to the Presence of God. 

Our Psalm quite obviously divides neatly into two sections. The first part (verses 1-6) describes the behavior of the heavens and celestial denizens, who are praising God by following, unchangingly, the rules established by God during the first week of Creation. Actually, our Psalmist assumes that the planets, stars and galaxies never change (verse 6). We now know that this isn’t true, because stars are dying and being born all the time. But it seems that the starry sky above is constant, and it is constant in following the laws of Divine laws of astrophysics. 

This listing goes from the very top of Creation, those spiritual entities who exist in close proximity to the Divine throne, (MALACHIM, angels and TZVA’AV, hosts, verse 2) down through the sun, moon, ‘bright stars’ (probably planets). These are the witnesses to Divine greatness, who never stop their impressive testimony to Divine greatness. I must interject at this point that the nighttime sky was awesome to humanity before Thomas Alva Edison. We have destroyed much of its wonder with modern light pollution, but an overnight stint in an empty desert will reignite much of this amazement. 

Our Psalm now switches to earthly testimonies to God’s greatness, but before we enter more mundane areas, I must make one point. Often religious observers are skeptical about exploration into heavenly realms. Afterall, aren’t ‘the highest heavens the Lord’s, while the earth was given to humanity’ (Psalms 115:16)?  So, how can humanity have the audacity to attempt to escape the earth’s boundaries? Well, I remember Rav Soloveitchik discussing this issue when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon in 1969. He explained that the definition of ‘earth’ in this context means anyplace that we can physically get to. Earth is the physical realm; heaven is the spiritual realm. 

The second part of our Psalm begins in verse 7 by describing how the earthly denizens and phenomena also praise God. We start with the deepest depths of the oceans. Then we hear about meteorological events lauding God by following Divine instructions, which acclaims Divine glory (verse 8). Next the mountains (over a 1000 feet/300 meters) and hills along with their trees add to the grandeur of God (verse 9). Then we discuss the animal realm, both tame and wild, disgusting and majestic adding to the honor of God (verse 10). Finally, we arrive at the top of the earthly hierarchy, humanity, kings and commoners, nobles and judges, young men and maidens, old and youthful all with the same goal of glorifying God, our Creator (verses 11 & 12). 

This leaves us with two extra verses. We had six verses describing the heavenly praise for God and six about the earthly acclaim. The final two statements wrap up the topic. Each verse, I strongly believe has a key term which sums up the Psalms’ essential point. The first is NISGAV, and the second is KEREN. They’re both hard to translate. 

In verse 13, our poet informs us that God is wonderful, and Divine splendor (HOD) envelops the massive entirety of Creation, both heavenly and earthly. This reality is expressed by calling out God’s name, which describes the Divine presence, ubiquity and eternity. The term that expresses this attempt to draw on this Higher Power is NISGAV. This term is variously translated exalted, excellent, high, great, wonderful, honored, but I prefer sublime. This exercise in praise brings us closer to God, but more importantly to the realization of the sublime perfection of God, which we can’t capture in our words or comprehend in our thoughts. The most we can hope for is an appreciation of God’s distance and, paradoxically, presence. 

But the final idea of our Psalm is saved for verse 14, which is the culmination of the first three HALELU-KAH Psalms. This crucial concept is the special role of the Jewish people, which is described by the term KEREN. The origin of this word is the impressive horns on certain animals, especially the RE’EM or wild ox. But the symbolism goes much further. 

The KEREN not only impressed, it also preserved and protected. Precious items have historically been preserved in hollowed out animal horns. In Biblical texts, it was often pure olive oil in these horns; in colonial America, it was gun powder. Over time the word was used to describe collections of precious items and cash. Hence a fund or collection of cash became a KEREN, like KEREN KAYEMET. 

So, our Psalm describes the Jewish nation as God’s KEREN, and this implies that we are an impressive adornment for God in the world. However, we are also preservers and protectors of the truth about God for all people for all times. Maintaining this KEREN status requires constant vigilance on the part of the Jewish people to do two things. First, to always represent the highest principles of God’s teaching, the Torah, and, second, to lead the world in praising the glory of God. 

Before we end the book of Tehillim with the two final Psalms, in which we look to the future, we have three HALELU-KAH poems which describe the constant requirement of recognizing the glory of God for all Creations. This progression can’t help but end with recognition of the special role of the Jewish nation in this universal effort. 

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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