Songs of Praise – A War Diary
“For the conductor, the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of David. Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods. Know that God has set apart the pious man for himself; God hears when I call to him…
In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, God, make me dwell in safety.”
In your previous psalm, it appeared that you were completely confident of God’s support, but now, David, just for a brief moment, it seemed to me that you exhibited a touch of anxiety, and your assertions dissolved into pleas: “Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” I share your anxiety, my brother, as do millions of others around here. But then that flicker of frailty was suppressed, as though you were afraid of your own fears, and you turned your disappointment and bewilderment onto those who have deposed you and sent you scurrying: ““Know that God has set apart the pious man for himself; God hears when I call to Him… How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”
As usual, you project a lot more certainty than I might dare. You assert that you are set apart and heard by God. Why do you feel this way, even when events have turned against you? Because you identify as a חָסִ֣יד, and God takes care of the pious? Does this faith come naturally to you? Or is it just a bit of bravado? A quashing of any lingering unease? It’s hard for me to tell. But I take you at your word, and it is because I believe you that I run into trouble.
I know that I am unfairly tasking you to answer to my anachronisms, but there was so much Jewish suffering after you (every Jew knows the historical litany), and believe me when I tell you that being a חָסִ֣יד offered no special protection whatsoever. The pious rarely came out unscathed. The inquisitor’s stake and the Nazi crematoria did not magically evaporate in the face of human saintliness. Yet, in our current circumstances in Zion, one hears numerous echoes of both your tone and your assuredness – confident pronouncements tinged almost by machismo. “We will win.” “Am Yisrael Chai.” “They started it, we will end it.” “God will protect His people.”
Really? So how did we/you get into this spot in the first place? You were unassailable, the stuff of legend – the king, the fighter, the musician, the paramour. And now, you are face down in the long grass, your son’s betrayal not just a conspiracy theory cooked up by someone wearing an aluminum hat, but the real thing.
Please forgive me if I sound grumpy. It’s just that there are certain rabbis in this country and this city, the one that you built, who feel compelled to praise God because some poor soul has been found, barely alive or escaped from being horribly murdered, only to overlook the obvious – the 20 other people a few metres away who have been slaughtered. I don’t know if my being drawn to that fact, in contrast to their focus on the living, means that I am overly ornery or they are willfully blind. It’s just that I don’t want my faith to avoid the facts, such as they are.
What the poet Robert Browning called “the grand Perhaps” is the very basis of being alive. We reach and we scratch and we claw, we twist and turn and beg for the answers that we hope will bring us to an understanding. Speaking personally, the more the “experts” try to assure me they have resolutions to my perplexity about the purpose and meaning of it all–be it viruses or rockets or the savagery of those who often come in the name of “liberation”–the more bewildered I feel.
The last time we faced something even remotely similar to what is happening now was the Yom Kippur War of 50 years ago. At the start of that war, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg [1949-2007], known throughout his career as Rav Shagar, was gravely wounded when his tank was hit and caught on fire. Afterwards, he would comment, “Even though we knew as did the entire nation of Israel that war had broken out, we did not fully appreciate what had happened and what would yet take place. The war confronted us and we were not prepared. This was also true from a spiritual perspective.” Badly burned and fortunate to survive, he would later discover the death of his friends and fellow soldiers.
Like you, David, it would take Rav Shagar a long time to put his experience into perspective. In explaining why, in the aftermath of the war, he could not make a seudat hoda’ah, a meal of thanksgiving, he asked poignantly, ‘How can I sing a song to God?’ I should make a seudat hodaah? What about my friends who did not merit to survive?!”
Hamas attacked as the holiday of Sukkot was coming to a close. In the sukkah, we sit in the shade, deliberately, what our tradition calls the “shade of faith.” Life, for much of the time, does not allow us to live with clarity and illumination, and we have to be able to manage our existence, and our faith, in the shadows, the “in-between” state that is neither light nor dark. And we hope, we tremble, that when we lie down and we rise up, that we can still dwell in safety when the dawn breaks.