David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 35

My kaddish journey has been uneventful recently. I’ve settled into my commitment, and the days are going by.

On Tuesday, I saw a poster on the building opposite ours indicating that a neighbor had just died. She was a very elderly woman who would often sit on the patio between our buildings in the sunshine. She always waved to our 4-year-old daughter, beckoning to her with a smile of pure joy. Through our limited interactions we came to learn her name: Zohara.

It was clear that Zohara’s health had been failing, and she was noticeably quite frail. She usually sat alone, save for her Filipina caregiver, although some of our other neighbors would occasionally stop to chat with her. Last Sunday, I waved to her in the afternoon as I made my way to pick up our daughter from preschool, noting the oxygen tube in her nose. Zohara was no longer sitting in the sunshine when we returned home.

The announcement, therefore, did not surprise me. (Also, ever since Papa died, I’ve come to perceive death everywhere and hovering just behind every one of us.)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote (blog #30):

From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

It’s true, but the permanence of death continues to unsettle my human sensibilities. Infinity may be of moments, but I experience only one.

Unlike us, the Torah has spanned countless, rippling moments, and its words have been taught in each. In our surging flow, however, the challenges are increasingly defying dry instruction. The Torah, for its own sake and perhaps for the sake of humanity, is called to answer every moment, but the questions pour out without end.

I once sought answers for my moment, but only questions last.

* * *

Recently, I’ve taken to listening to some modern religious music, and the sheer optimism of the God-oriented lyrics cheers me. How much more so for those who believe the answers?

Modern Israeli musicians often include bible verses in their songs, whether they’re religious or not. Hebrew is the holy tongue, after all; and 80% of Israelis believe in God (see: the 2012 AVI CHAI Israel report) so the lines are meant to resonate with the audience.

As I research various Jewish themes for my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series, I come across songs that move me. This week, I came across a haunting song (see above) by Israeli vocalist Zehava Ben, which she put out nearly thirty years ago. The lyrics are simply the first two lines (verses 105-106) of stanza נ (nun) of Psalm 119, which I am studying now in Papa’s memory.

In fact, it turns out that verse 105 was also popularized throughout the Christian world by Amy Grant’s song ‘Thy Word’, which has since been covered by many, many others: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path ♪♫

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

PSALM 119:נ (verses 105-112)

[CLICK for glossary]

נ-A

קה נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר, לִנְתִיבָתִי 105 Thy dvar is an oil lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
קו נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַיֵּמָה– לִשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 106 I have sworn and have fulfilled it, to observe Thy righteous mishpatim.
קז נַעֲנֵיתִי עַד-מְאֹד; יְהוָה, חַיֵּנִי כִדְבָרֶךָ 107 I am afflicted very much; sustain me, O Lord, according to Thy dvar.
קח נִדְבוֹת פִּי, רְצֵה-נָא יְהוָה; וּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי 108 Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me Thine mishpatim.

 

נ-B

קט נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד; וְתוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 109 My life is always in my hand; and I have not forgotten Thy Torah.
קי נָתְנוּ רְשָׁעִים פַּח לִי; וּמִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ, לֹא תָעִיתִי 110 The wicked have laid a snare for me; anI went not astray from Thy pikudim.
קיא נָחַלְתִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ לְעוֹלָם: כִּי-שְׂשׂוֹן לִבִּי הֵמָּה 111 Thy eidot have I taken as a heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
קיב נָטִיתִי לִבִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת חֻקֶּיךָ– לְעוֹלָם עֵקֶב 112 I have inclined my heart to perform Thy hukim for ever, eikev.

 

Stanza נ (nun) can easily be broken apart into two semi-stanzas; I call them נ-A (105-108) and נ-B (109-112). These two follow different poetic patterns, which distinguish them, but they are also bound to one another at the ends, as I will explain below.

* * *

נ-A (105-108)

The first semi-stanza is made distinct by its repetition of two particular keywords that Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) identifies in his glossary for Psalm 119: dvar (verses 105, 107) and mishpatim (106, 108). The structure of נ-A’s alternating verses, according to their keywords, is: 1,2-1,2.

105-106

The imagery of verse 105 (‘an oil lamp unto my feet’) is one of the Psalmist walking through the darkness, afraid to stumble, but reassured by the glow of God’s dvar. Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) paints the picture in his ‘Metzudat David’ commentary:

נר לרגלי. כמו הנר מציל הוא בחשכת הלילה מכל מכשול לבל תגוף הרגל An oil lamp unto my feet. [It is] like the oil lamp saves him in the darkness of night from every obstacle [before him] in order that his foot not be hurt.

 

Regardless of his trying circumstances, the Psalmist has sworn to uphold God’s mishpatim (verse 106). The commentators consistently write that intensifying one’s commitment to God’s commandments by personal oath serves to whet one’s motivation. The ‘Metzudat David’ explains:

נשבעתי וגו׳. רצונו לומר, כדי לזרז את עצמי נשבעתי לשמר וגו׳, וקיימתי את השבועה I have sworn, etc. This means to say: in order to motivate myself I have sworn to observe, etc., and I fulfilled the oath.

 

107-108

Verses 107-108 follow the themes of 105-106, but now the Psalmist sounds markedly less assured.

Whereas he had been walking through darkness, he’d had God’s dvar to guide him. Now (verse 107) the Psalmist feels afflicted, hoping humbly for the fulfillment of the holy dvar (word, promise). Rashi (1040-1105) and Radak both suggest that the Psalmist is afflicted to the point of near death. One wonders about the transition between verses 105 and 107.

Verse 108 reflects this same shift. Whereas the Psalmist in verse 106 spoke confidently of his deliberate commitment to God’s mishpatim, two verses later he’s suddenly unsure of himself: ‘Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth’. Whereas at first (verse 106) he claimed to observe the mishpatim, he now (verse 108) requests: ‘teach me Thine mishpatim’. Again, what happened here?

* * *

נ-B (109-112)

Unlike the preceding semi-stanza, the second half of ‘נ’ is not knit together by the keywords of Psalm 119, which refer to God’s commandments. Verses 109-112 each contain their own distinct keywords: Torah, pikudim, eidot, and hukim. 

The emphasis here is on other words stitched into these verses, and the structure of this semi-stanza follows a different pattern than נ-A. The first two verses (109, 110) both contain the pattern of ‘and I… [verb] not’ (ו… לא {שם הפועל}י). Likewise, the second pair of verses (111, 112) share common language: לב (lev) – heart and לעולם (l’olam) – forever. These last four verses follow the pattern 1,1-2,2, unlike the first semi-stanza.

109-110

The first two verses of this semi-stanza pick up on the theme of threats and challenges faced by the Psalmist, which we saw at the end of נ-A.

On its face, the phrase ‘My life is always in my hand’ (נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד) doesn’t hint of danger to me. (In modern English and modern Hebrew, if something is “in your hands” this suggests that you have control of it.) However, Rashi, Radak, and Rabbi Altschuler link the biblical phrase directly to danger:

רש״י: נפשי בכפי תמיד. הרבה נסתכנתי בסכנות רבות קרובות למיתה Rashi: My life is always in my hand. I have been endangered by great dangers, close to death.
רד״ק: נפשי. … אני בסכנה תמיד כאילו נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי Radak: My life. … I am always in danger, as if my life is in my hand.
הרב אלטשולר: נפשי בכפי. … נפשי היא תמיד בסכנה כמו המחזיק דבר מה בכפו שהיא קרובה לפול כשפיתח כפו Rabbi Altschuler: My life is in my hand. … My life is always in danger, like one who is holding a thing in his hand that is nearly falling, should he open his hand.

 

This phrase occurs elsewhere in the bible and consistently refers to one’s life being in danger. Perhaps I understand: The Psalmist would rather have his life in God’s hand than in his own. This is not unlike the common fear of flying, in comparison to the not-so-common fear of driving.

The Psalmist’s fear of driving would be greater, and he would be correct:

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts, according to David Ropeik, risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health. Driving affords more personal control, making it feel safer.

USA TODAY

Thus we see that verses 109 and 110 continue the theme of ‘being in danger’ from the preceding verses, but they differ from verses 107 and 108 in a critical way. The beginning of semi-stanza נ-B expresses the Psalmist’s awareness of the dangers he faces, but he is not pleading for God’s aid. Rather, he reverts to a language of confidence and mission, which he first used in verses 105 and 106, at the beginning of semi-stanza נ-A.

111-112

This shift back towards purpose and security continues building up in the final two verses of stanza נ. Here, in 111 and 112, the Psalmist makes no reference to any threats or dangers; rather, he expresses his unending commitment to God’s laws and his joy at performing them. ‘They are the rejoicing of my heart.’

* * *

Tying together the ends

While these two semi-stanzas can stand on their own, they do tell a story together. It’s a tale of a determination shaken by apprehension, followed by newfound perseverance, ultimately leading the Psalmist to soaring confidence and commitment. It’s the classic story of grit and spirit, set against the backdrop of faith and a strive for holiness.

The Psalmist employs multiple poetic devices in the telling, some more subtle than others. נ-A and נ-B flow together in narrative, but there is something more binding them together.

108 and 109 (the middle)

The end of נ-A connects elegantly to נ-B with language referring to uniquely human capabilities. Verse 108 evokes the element of human speech, that essential part of human culture, and thus of our evolution. Verse 109 evokes the human being’s hands, those dexterous appendages that enabled us to develop the technologies needed to dominate the planet.

105 and 112 (the ends)

Perhaps more intriguingly, the very beginning of נ-A ties beautifully into the end of נ-B, at least according to Rashi.

The key to understanding this is the very last word of the stanza: eikev (עקב). What does it mean? According to the BDB Dictionary, meanings (depending upon vowelization) include: heel, footprint, follow, circumvent, overreach, insidious, deceitful, steep, hilly, consequence, end.

The rabbis had to get very creative in order to interpret verse 112, which would have made perfect sense even without the word eikev. Radak and Rabbi Altschuler both suggest that eikev comes to emphasize l’olam (לעולם) – forever. In their readings, eikev means ‘to the utmost’, stemming, perhaps, from the idea that the heel is the utmost end of the body.

Rashi has a different take. Likely drawing a correlation to eikev in the context of heel (part of the foot), follow, and circumvent, he writes as follows:

לעולם עקב. על מעגלותם ועל נתיבותם For ever, eikev: On their circuitous routes and on their paths.

 

The word Rashi uses for ‘path’ is netivot (נתיבות), which is exactly the same word used by the Psalmist in verse 105: ‘a light unto my path’ (נְתִיבָתִי)!

This gracefully brilliant interpretation brings the stanza around full circle – the story’s end becomes its beginning. This understanding suggests that nothing less than the Psalmist’s soaring confidence and commitment to God’s commandments anticipate his affliction and desperate, humble beseechment before the Almighty.

Might the Psalmist have intuited a fault in boundlessness of faith?

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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