Songs of Praise – A War Diary
A psalm of David. As/when he fled from his son Absalom.
God, how many are my tormentors.
How the multitudes rise up against me! Many speak about my soul: “There is no salvation for him from God.” Selah.
But you, God, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who raises up my head.
I call out my voice to God, and he answers me from his holy mountain. Selah.
I lay down and slept; I wake again, because God supports me.
I do not fear the myriads of people who surround me on every side.
Rise up, God! Grant me salvation, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the cheek; break the teeth of the wicked. To God is deliverance. May your blessing be on your people, Selah.
The context of Psalm 3 is David’s escape from his rebellious son Absalom (see II Samuel, ch. 15). David has bolted from the palace in Jerusalem, and is now a chameleon in the desert. Though presumably he has little time for literary pursuits, he has slowed down or stopped long enough to pen this psalm. He is not simply running, but running away. For Westerners living in relative comfort, what might cause anyone to sprint in desperation? Caught in a thunderstorm? Chasing the bus? Late for an appointment? Famous enough that you have to hide from paparazzi? The last person from whom you would think you need to flee was your son. But the unexpected, the unthinkable, the supposedly unimaginable is happening. He is hunting you down.
The king, the epitome of unchallenged might, has gone from invincible power to pitiful flight in a matter of moments. Is he afraid? Angry? Disappointed? Is he stunned and shocked and disbelieving? Could he have seen it coming? Would anyone really dare to challenge his undisputed supremacy?
One cannot unsee what one has seen. It will forever be impossible to banish it from your mind, from your dreams, from your waking thoughts. Young/old/women/men/dark/ light/ coverings of belief/heads shorn of God/children/Holocaust survivors/babies—fleeing, running or unable to move, hiding, crouching, rolling, faltering, screaming, begging, crying, not breathing, feigning, playing dead. Playing and dead.
A minute before, a blink of time – singing, dancing, praying, eating, talking, kissing, sleeping, teasing, waking, watching the sun rise. Living.
Suddenly, the horizon is filled with pursuers, tormentors, myriads and multitudes, too many to count. They are everywhere, and they are coming for you. There is no rescue – not from a computerized, ultrasensitive electronic fence, not from the police or the guards or the army or the media or the government or the houses we built and the borders we constructed. Certainly, as David well knows, our reputations will not save us. The enemy has calculated that my salvation will not materialize, not even from heaven.
Jews have been wandering, fleeing, roaming, drifting, for an eternity, up and down the length and darkness of history. It’s always moving day when you are Jewish, from Adam and Eve loading up the minivan on the way out of Eden, to their murderous son Cain, cursed by God to move from place to place, feet never touching the ground. Abraham and Sarah leave home, Isaac and Rebecca leave home, Jacob and Rachel and Leah leave home, Joseph leaves home. Moses leaves home. David is just one more Jew with nowhere to go.
And then came Zionism. The last stop. The haven. The homeland. Unpack the car. We are here to stay. Drain the deserts and make them bloom. We are here to stay. Roll out the tanks, refuel the jets, load the guns. We are here to stay. Start-up nation, we are here to stay. Learning Torah day and night, we are here to stay. Cities, towns, moshavim, kibbutzim, parks, children, railroads, airports, tourist buses, children, the blue and white, the papers stuck in the Wall. Children. We are here to stay. Rabbis and soothsayers and magical blessings and checkpoints and holy tombs and tunnels and hustler amulets and F-16’s. And children. We are here to…. No more yellow stars and cattle cars and zyklon-B. We are never leaving. WE. ARE. HERE. TO. STAY.
In the distance, a figure approaches in the desert. He wonders where it all went so wrong, how he is so alone in the world. He is running. Come join us, David. You are an Israeli now.
I see that you have called upon God, the means of last resort. The skeptics will, of course, view your assurance with derision. Bendrix, the despairing atheist in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, bitterly denounces the whole project of faith: “When we get to the end of human beings, we have to delude ourselves into a belief in God.”
I am not Bendrix, David, though my faith is probably not like yours. I am fascinated by your certainty that God will help you defeat your enemies. Your pleas invoking Hashem sound utterly genuine to me. You should know that these days, the most religious of phrases have been thoroughly appropriated in the most mundane of circumstances. “Hashem yishmor” Israelis often exclaim [literally “God will/should guard us/me/you”]. But what some of them invariably mean is “no way!” or “get out of here!” similar to when North Americans will say, in amazement, “Praise Jesus” or “mother of God” when they see a game winning touchdown pass. But here you are, David, confident—too confident?–that God not only hears your plight but will be right there.
Like many other Jews for millennia, you have surmised that you need metaphysical intervention to fight your battles because there is no way you can achieve victory yourself. So I guess it is left to the One above to “strike them on the cheek,” or “break their teeth.” But God help us, if we all we have left in Gaza to help us is God. Jews have done enough running. Selah.