Songs of Praise – A War Diary
“A shiggayon of David, which he sang to God concerning Cush, a Benjamite. Hashem my God, I take refuge in you/save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me… Arise, God, in your anger; lift Yourself up in fury against my enemies.
Awaken, my God and do according the decree You commanded…
Bring to an end the violence of the wicked and sustain the righteous—
You, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts. My shield lies with God, who saves the upright in heart. God is a righteous judge, a God who is angered every day.”
Nobody knows what a shiggayon is. It is left untranslatable in virtually all English versions of Tehillim. I suspect that it was perfectly obvious to you, David, and that we have lost the historical context. But modern commentators all say that it is a kind of psalm, or a musical/ literary term, and that its uniqueness is confirmed by the fact that the word only appears in the singular in this psalm and no other Biblical text. So, in other words, we have no idea.
When human beings cannot give a comprehensible account of what things mean, when the supposedly rational order quickly loses coherence, our language morphs into the semi-mystical. Words like “unknowable” and “unfathomable” enter our discourse. This is especially true in times of savage and supreme violence, such as Nazi mass extermination, or recently the acts of Hamas, gleefully recorded by the murderers on video.
Phonically, the word shiggayon will remind any modern Hebrew speaker of the oft used phrase “Shigaon”, meaning “craziness” or “madness”, which would ostensibly be a fitting description of gas chambers or the decapitation of babies. But is this barbarism, right up to the point of genocide, really unthinkable? Inconceivable?
In the beautifully written and acted British series Foyle’s War, about a British policeman trying to solve local crimes—invariably murders—in the midst of World War II, there is an episode where the title character, Chief Detective Christopher Foyle of the Hastings Constabulary, befriends a Jewish refugee named Josef Novak. Novak and Foyle have taken up a semi-regular chess game in the midst of the enormous anxiety of war. In the episode, entitled “Broken Souls,“ we learn that Novak’s wife and daughter have been transported to Majdanek concentration camp at a time when Novak was out of the country. When Foyle refers to a BBC broadcast about the mass killing taking place at Majdanek, he speaks of the “unimaginable horror that had been uncovered there.” Novak’s response is as profound as it is clearheaded: ‘No, the point is someone did imagine it and then made it a reality for my family and countless others.’
Indeed, for a long time before October 7, somebody conceived it, thought it, imagined it, fathomed it, detailed it, guided and commanded it. And, of course, carried it out. It was no longer a work of the imagination, a product of thought. It was carefully calculated and considered, and then it was done.
I am reminded of the fact, David, that according to our most famous Rosh Hashana prayer, human life and its fate, down to the minutest detail of how and when we are going to die, are never inscrutable or unimaginable for our God. We are told in the ominous language: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – Who shall live and who shall die. Who in good time, and who by an untimely death. Who by water and who by fire. Who by sword and who by wild beast. Who by strangulation and who by stoning. Who shall be at peace and who pursued. Who shall be serene and who tormented…”
In this prayer, the mathematics of living on borrowed time is not overly complicated, and in the stanza found immediately prior to “Who will live and who will Die?”, the text narrates each of us walking before a divine sheepherder: “All humankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.”
We pass by as though in single file, bent beneath the staff of fate, nowhere to hide. Do the “sheep” know the destiny that awaits them? Nothing is unknowable or unfathomable in the divine imagination, nothing at all.
And if we are meant to know that God foresees every last thing that happens to us, then perhaps we should concede that Hamas were very much in their “right” minds, thinking and counting, calculating and considering, with determination and preparedness, exactly what kind of destruction they intended to set off on that fateful day, when our brothers and sisters, in single file and also in twos and threes, in hiding and in the open, in `safe’ rooms and exposed desert sands, saw their fate unravelling, and realized only too late, that the unthinkable had been Thought, the unfathomable had been Fathomed, and the unreal was now, and forever, Real.