Elliott Malamet

Psalm 11 – Between fanaticism and boredom

Songs of Praise –  A War Diary

In God I take refuge. How then can you say to my soul:
“Wander like a bird to your mountain.”

 For behold, the wicked bend their bow; they set their arrows on the bowstring
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.

“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

God is in his holy temple; Hashem is on his heavenly throne.
He eyes see; his pupils examine the sons of men.
Hashem examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence,
He hates with His soul.  וְ֖רָשָׁע וְאֹהֵ֣ב חָמָ֑ס שָֽׂנְאָ֥ה נַפְשֽׁוֹ
On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur;
a scorching wind is the portion of their cup.

For Hashem is righteous. He loves those who do acts of righteousness.

Dear David,

Today, most everyone has a relationship guru or a life coach, and we talk a lot about “relationship addiction.” A whole cottage industry of books and seminars tried to help people caught in the forest, the jungle of need – mostly women – get “unaddicted.” The book titles went straight for the gut; back in the 80’s, there was Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them; and then later on, Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change. You’d see them in the window of the bookstore, staring at you as if to say “you know you need me if you ever want to get free.” And then, after that, we discovered anti-depressants.

Are you an addict, David? Your deepest passion and your greatest frustration come from that God who seems to seduce and bewitch you with His ruthless charm. I’m reading your psalms, and they vacillate between rage and optimism, between sadness and bewilderment, between hope and helplessness, all for a lover you will never taste or smell or touch. Perhaps, in the end, you did not really want the messiness of human love. You wanted salvation, a Being who would not disappoint, who would repay evil with destruction, and righteousness with paradise. How did it go? Was it satisfying?

But there are other voices in your head, unseen and unnamed, telling you to “wander like a bird to your mountain.” Whom do you hear? Why are they telling you to run, especially if God is your refuge? Did it turn out that God was not enough to save you when the arrows of randomness and hate started raining down, that you had to run away, free like a bird, fragile like a bird?

It is a quirk that a word from Biblical Hebrew and a contemporary Arabic term both end up sounding the same alarm bell. In Biblical Hebrew, as you well know, חָמָ֑ס [Hamas] meant “violence” [וְ֖רָשָׁע וְאֹהֵ֣ב חָמָ֑ס שָֽׂנְאָ֥ה נַפְשֽׁוֹ]. And now, to our unending regret and sorrow, there is the phonetically identical and merciless acid of a word, Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Resistance Movement.”) You say that God hates חָמָ֑ס and that he will “rain fiery coals and burning sulfur” on the wicked.  Will Gaza end up like Sodom, then, a hellscape without any hope, with not even ten righteous individuals to save the place from doom?

You tell me that God knows everything that is going on in our exceedingly small theater of vanity and self-importance, that “He sees and examines and hates with His soul…He loves those who do acts of righteousness.” But if all of this is true, then why do you despair? Why the plaintive query: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Did you have trouble reconciling your beliefs with your actual experience? Is there no place for a good person anymore?

I know, that in my day and age, the very idea of goodness is becoming increasingly difficult to define. A nineteenth century man whom you would never understand or even wish to, lacerated his contemporaries as having chests that were hollow. Friedrich Nietzsche, unafraid like you, but with none of your desperately beautiful belief, or capacity for spiritual surrender, would mock us as lacking any larger dreams of glory or domination. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out “Liberal democracy produced ‘men without chests,’ composed of desire and reason but lacking thymos [spirit; emotion; motivation], clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest.”

Our modern problem, David, is that the polite rational people, the ones who will leave you alone, who will “live and let live,” and are bereft of any real convictions they would die for, have usually been sucked into the giant maw of capitalism, and imagine little beyond the latest toy or gadget. They wake up each day to a paltry vision of accumulating as much money as possible in the quest for an illusory security. And the dreamers, the ones infused by the glory and terror of ideology, of fantasies of conquest and aspirations of purification and annihilation – of Godliness – of them one needs to be very, very afraid. So what do we have left to draw upon, in this twilight between fanaticism and boredom? It’s getting late and a scorching wind is beginning to blow.

About the Author
Dr. Elliott Malamet is a Jewish educator living in Jerusalem. He has a doctorate in English literature and teaches Jewish Ethics and Philosophy at various Israeli institutions, including Yeshivat Machanaim, Pardes, and the Schechter Institute.