Songs of Praise – A War Diary (Psalm 2)
October 9. The siren went off 2 minutes ago, so I am starting to write this in the miklat [מִּקְלָ֔ט]. To clarify, especially for non-Israelis, a miklat is a room where you take refuge when an air raid siren goes off indicating incoming rocket fire. My wife Leah and I have timed it to approximately 90 seconds between the siren ring and the first distinct boom! of the rocket crashing to earth.
The word miklat (“bomb shelter”) is often used interchangeably with mammad, which is an acronym for Merkhav Mugan Dirati (מרחב מוגן דירתי or ממ”ד), literally a “protected space within an apartment.” A miklat usually refers to a public space such as one shared by all the residents of an apartment building–often in the basement of the building–in case of an attack, whereas a mammad alludes to a specific room inside of your own apartment that has been specially built to withstand the blast from whatever projectiles the enemy has sent your way. A good mammad has reinforced walls and ceilings, a thick door that opens outwards and airtight windows. In many older buildings in Israel, such as the one Leah and I presently reside in, there is often no mammad that has been built for each individual apartment, so you have to run downstairs each time to reach the building’s miklat. My brother jokes that this is a crazy way to get exercise!
(Note: every home built in Israel since 1993 is required by law to have a mammad, but studies show that as of 2021, more than half of Israeli apartments still did not have one).
The word miklat has an ancient genealogy. Both the Book of Exodus and the Book of Numbers relate that “cities of refuge“ [Hebrew: עָרֵ֣י הַמִּקְלָ֔ט] were set aside to offer sanctuary to one who had accidentally killed another person by some act of negligence. The Torah was fearful of vengeance on the part of a relative of the deceased, and so these refuge towns housed the unwitting offender, often for life. Of course, in the case of Leah and I and all other Israelis, the perpetrator is not killing by accident.
Both miklat and mammad are words that imply that you will be protected, but we all know that protection is often elusive and safety never guaranteed in this life.
Why do the nations gather [rage] and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth stand up and the rulers conspire secretly
against God and his anointed…The One enthroned in heaven laughs and mocks them…
Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. אַ֜שְׁרֵ֗י כָּל־ח֥וֹסֵי בֽוֹ:
Many of the psalms revolve around a series of related questions: who or what has authority in your life? To whom do you concede power, in the sense that they have the ability to ruin your mood with a single comment or send you skyward with even the briefest nod of approval? Whose affirmation do you seek, explicitly or unconsciously, your every waking hour? What are the factors, or who are the players, that you feel have real control over you? Are we independent masters of our own destiny, with full agency over our choices and our lives, or does it sometimes feel like we are characters in someone else’s novel, a narrative we barely know or understand, the author in the shadows with a plot of his/her own?
The philosophy of the Psalms deeply embedded in Jewish theology, is that there is a Force greater than all of us, and that all of the presumed power over which we preside–to split the atom, to cross the seas and traverse the skies, and yes, to kill and terminate life with wanton abandon—offers but a temporary and illusory sense of dominance. The image of Psalm 3 is of a bemused god who snidely mocks the pretense of human beings towards dominion or control. When we have exhausted our illusory belief that we can ultimately bend anything to our will, at the end of that long and arduous and often fruitless journey, this psalm suggests that God lies in waiting for us to concede: “ok, I get it. What’s the real story?”
And, at that moment, the psalm concludes that God is the miklat, the haven that transcends our earthly woes, if we could but believe it. I do not know if I do. But the author of the psalm is testing out his provocative thesis while we sit in our supposedly “safe room.” Does the divine miklat secretly smile and gently deride my earthly facsimile? In my neighborhood, and virtually all others in this country, it could very well be that God is the final refuge, because confidence in the government, the intelligence services, and the army, has been utterly shredded in the past few days. Still, one must believe in something, as the British novelist Graham Greene reminds us: “It is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”
What I do know for certain is that akin to my Biblical ancestor, I hope that my stay in the miklat will be extremely brief, and that there are no vengeful forces waiting for me upon my exit. Perhaps it is not just on those four words on the American dollar bill that we learn the inevitable.