Avi Rockoff

Tehillim 110

At our minyan every weekday morning, we say תהילים ק”י, Psalm 110.  I keep a book of Tehillim close by because the words are unfamiliar, except for the final two pesukim.

The first of the familiar ones is:

יָדִ֣ין בַּ֭גּוֹיִם מָלֵ֣א גְוִיּ֑וֹת מָ֥חַץ רֹ֝֗אשׁ עַל־אֶ֥רֶץ רַבָּֽה, God judges nations, heaping up bodies, crushing heads far and wide.

I am quite sure that we are not praying for heaps of bodies or crushed heads.

Jews address our religious texts not directly, but through interpretation.  Rashi, for instance, understands “heaps of bodies” to refer to the Egyptians who pursued our ancestors into the sea at Yam Suf. As for “crushed heads, far and wide”, he takes that to mean crushing the power of Pharaoh, the head of the greatest empire of his time, who ruled large expanses.

In other words, Rashi did not take the words of Tehillim 110 as hoped-for vengeance against current enemies.  Though he could have.

Rashi was born in northern France in 1040 CE.  He went to study in Germany, in the great yeshivot of the Rhineland.  Then he went home, taking with him—in his head—the Torah of his teachers and the contents of their libraries.  Not long after, when he was 56, the mobs of the First Crusade destroyed the Rhineland communities, along with their scholars and yeshivot. Rashi preserved and passed on their Torah and teaching, which might otherwise have been lost.

The reason the pasuk above sounds familiar is that we say it most every Shabbat at the end of Av HaRachamim, just before musaf. Av HaRachamim was written to remember those who died in the First Crusade. It invokes the memory of קְהִלּות הַקּדֶשׁ שֶׁמָּסְרוּ נַפְשָׁם עַל קְדֻשַּׁת הַשֵּׁם, the holy congregations who gave their lives to sanctify God’s name. It asks God to remember themְ, and adds: וְיִקום נִקְמַת דַּם עֲבָדָיו הַשָּׁפוּךְ, that He avenge the spilled blood of His servants.

This phrase has resonated through the centuries, down to current life in Israel.  People who have passed on can be honored by the acronym ע”ה, alav hashalom–may he be at peace–or perhaps ז”ל, zichrono livracha–may his memory be for a blessing. But those who have perished in battle, or through violent hatred, merit a different acronym: הי”ד, Hashem yikom damam, may God avenge their blood.

What makes all this relevant is the war in which the State of Israel finds itself. As we now know, with horror and disgust, this war was sparked by the actions of people who hold that their own religious tradition demands precise replication, in real time, of the verse in Tehillim 110:

מָלֵ֣א גְוִיּ֑וֹת—a landscape filled with Jewish corpses, mutilated, violated, burned.          מָ֥חַץ רֹ֝֗אשׁ, the heads of women, men, babies crushed, severed, blown to bits.          עַל־אֶ֥רֶץ רַבָּֽה, far and wide, across the kibbutzim, the fields, the desert.

Those who perpetrated this did not wait for their deity. They did it with their own bloody hands. And celebrated.

Now all Israel is mobilized to uproot the mortal threat to Jewish lives and the Jewish State posed by a neighbor ruled by people who think and act this way.

Those who hate us—we have never lacked for these—will say, are already saying, what they always say: that Israel and the Jews are treacherous, vicious, vengeful without peer.  That we are as immoral and inhuman as they imagine us to be and as some of them actually are.

The Jews of Rashi’s time, and many generations after them, were not in a position to act in their own behalf.  They left vengeance to God, in God’s own time.

Right now what must be done is not revenge but assuring the security of the Jewish State and the safety of its citizens.  And the State has a unified, capable, and an incredibly courageous citizenry poised to do what is needed.

ביחד ננצח is their motto: Together we will win.  And they will win. Because they can.  And because they must.

And we will pray, each morning and every day, for their success and safe return to their homes and families.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.