Elliott Malamet

Psalm 17 – Deliverance

Songs of Praise – A War Diary

“Hear, Hashem, what is just; listen to my cry.
Give ear to my prayer— it is not from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from You; Your eyes will behold what is right.

You examined my heart; You visited me at night; You tested me;
You did not find – I determined that my mouth should not transgress…
I have guarded myself from the ways of the lawless. My steps have held to Your paths; my feet have not stumbled.

I call on You; You will answer me, Hashem. Turn Your ear to me and hear what I say.
Display Your faithfulness in wondrous deeds,
You who deliver with Your right hand
those who seek refuge from assailants.

Keep me as the apple of the eye; in the shadow of Your wings, You will hide me… from the wicked who have plundered me, from my mortal enemies who surround me…

As we step out, they surround us now, they set their eyes roaming over the land.                      He is like a lion eager for prey, like a young lion lying in wait. Rise, Hashem, go forth to meet him. Bring him down; rescue me from the wicked with Your sword…As for me, I will be vindicated and will see Your face.”

David, why do we spend our lives justifying ourselves, as you have done here? Is it a sin to be born, that we need to constantly defend our existence along the way? Is life an endless job interview with God, where no résumé, no evidence of accomplishments or awards will suffice in the present moment? And what do we need to do to bring the interview to an end, to achieve vindication?

“You examined my heart, you visited me at night; You tested me.”

There is a story about the American economist Tyler Cowen, who handed out his final exam and stated simply, “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he left the room.

David, you seemed to have passed God’s test, the one with no actual questions. From your own account, you have walked much of what would later constitute the Buddha’s eightfold path – right speech, right action, right effort, right mindfulness. I assume when you wrote this psalm that you were still on the run, and needed to remind your Protector of your spotless record. Is it a sign of my own naïveté that I am disappointed that you had to offer your CV in exchange for God’s shelter, as if our merits are only useful as negotiating pieces, as assets to trade for our continued survival?

What happens when a parent informs a child, every day, “you are only alive because of me”? Is that a useful reminder? A spur to gratitude, or a dagger of guilt? If we enjoy the hand we were dealt, then we are told that we should never forget to appreciate – every sunrise viewed, every flower smelt, every morsel of food, every drop of water, every taste of love. What if the cards run the other way – no food, not even the tiniest scrap. Endless abuse, limbs torn away, desiccated bodies, landscapes ravaged. The smallest hope buried under incoming ordinance. Gratitude – for that too? Or do we get to conduct some interviews at that point ourselves? David, must you beg?

“Hashem, turn Your ear to me and hear what I say.
Display Your faithfulness in wondrous deeds,
You who deliver with Your right hand those who seek refuge from assailants.”

This is what powerlessness brings. No longer the reassuring myth of the self-made man, with the need for no one. As Tammy Wynette crooned, “Lord, you know I’m gonna need a friend/Till I get used to losing you/Let me keep on using you, till I can make it on my own.”

I don’t know anyone who can make it on their own, but there are times, as counter-rational as it sounds, when God may be the only friend around.  There are people here, bless them, who argue that the national persona should be one of perpetual optimism, of being tough, of citizens all packing guns, of believing fully in the stories we tell ourselves of our resilience, and our ultimate destiny as Chosen in the Promised Land. On the bus, every few minutes, I hear a computerized voice tell me “together, we will win.” I do not know what means, only that the bus is now one more place where I cannot be left with my own thoughts.

I feel my own resilience collapsing, forming and reforming itself like a moebius strip. So I’d be the last person to belittle your desire, David, to be on the right side of God, when cruelty springs up everywhere, “a lion lying in wait,” and all seems lost. But yet we continue. Improbably, we go on.

You were seeking what we all want, regardless of whether we are being chased by our enemies or, maybe worse, left to ourselves. And there is nothing in this world that can give it to us, even if you are the “King of Israel,” then or now. So you set your sights elsewhere, to see if it you could find it, or if it would find you, in a moment of grace.


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.
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