David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 36

Several weeks ago, my four-year-old daughter decided to once again start coming to shul with me on Saturdays for mincha and ma’ariv services. Last autumn, this became impossible for her when daylight savings time ended, as the timing of her afternoon naps wouldn’t allow it (blog #22). Now, as the days lengthen steadily, my child has already recommitted to joining me.

Her attendance commenced upon my return to Israel from Papa’s funeral and shiva last July when I began going to minyan every day to recite kaddish (after a hiatus of more than three years). Back then (she was not yet three-and-a-half), my daughter did not appreciate my extended daily absences; and she determined that she would join me – at least on Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings (blog #5).

While those in mourning customarily lead the worship, I was determined at first to avoid this (blog #5). On Shabbatot, I would sit with her towards the back of the sanctuary, but several months later, I became comfortable enough to lead mincha before Shabbat (blog #18). Eventually, I started leading ma’ariv at the conclusion of Shabbat (blog #24) and unexpectedly even led shacharit one morning (blog #25). More recently, I’ve come to make my peace with leading shacharit on weekdays when there is no Torah reading (blog #34).

In retrospect, I see that all of these developments only began once daylight savings time had ended and my daughter had stopped coming to shul. Now that she has rejoined me on Saturdays, I’ve come to a realization – I can’t lead services intentfully when she’s with me. Twice since her recent return to services, I’ve led ma’ariv at the close of Shabbat, but I was unable to simultaneously focus on my duty to the congregation and be present for her.

Daylight saving time will begin in Israel in less than two weeks, and I am fully expecting my little girl to triumphantly declare that she’s back in the game for the long haul. Most likely, she’ll once again take to coming with me to shul on Friday afternoons, just as she used to. I am looking forward to that.

Sitting with my daughter at services has been one of the most meaningful experiences and one of the most wonderful aspects of my return to the synagogue. Her development as a Jew and as a person fascinates me.

In Israel, she breathes Jewish culture in a way that I never did as a child in America. The Jewish calendar is fully integrated into her life, including our family’s weekly Shabbat observance; and regardless of the tragic circumstances that brought me back to shul, my child has also developed a familiarity with the synagogue and prayer services. At four-years-old, she is aware of countless Jewish rituals and customs that I hadn’t known of in my childhood; and in many cases, she understands far more than what her parents and teachers have explained to her.

* * *

In every conceivable way, I have never been so aware of another person as I am of my daughter. It’s not only her development and her growth that I notice – it’s her ways of communicating, her shifting moods, her learning style, her manners, her energy levels, her… everything. Such, it seems, is parenthood.

Among her many habits, I’ve noted a cute and consistent quirk of hers: she eats pizza upside down, placing the cheese and toppings directly onto her tongue. I haven’t mentioned this to her or asked about it, but every time I watch her eating pizza I immediately think of Papa.

My father greatly delighted in the simple and the elegant; he was a staunch believer in humankind’s ingenuity and potential. This is precisely why he was inspired to name his acclaimed ‘Cut the Knot’ website after the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot and why he so admired creative innovations like the ‘inverted umbrella’, which he spoke of with such admiration.

In this same spirit, one of my father’s favorite Soviet era stories ends with a man coaching the main character on how to best eat an open deli sandwich – upside down with the meat directly on your taste buds. In the late 70’s, this same folk wisdom was immortalized by the classic Soviet cartoon ‘Three from Prostokvashino’, in which Matroskin the Cat shares these words of wisdom with the young boy nicknamed Uncle Fyodor:

I do appreciate this bent towards the simple solution, but it also bores me somewhat.

As I study the verses of Psalm 119 in Papa’s honor, my greatest pleasure comes from the multitude of possible understandings of the text. It satisfies me to sift through numerous opposing interpretations and unearth personal meaning in any, in none, or in all of them. Textual contradictions and inconsistencies entice and excite me; they stretch the boundaries of one’s imagination. It is only on their account that the Torah may yet hold relevance.

I’d like my Judaism complex, with a side of creativity please.

I have a tendency to complicate things, and [Papa’s] approach tended towards a rational simplicity that I did not relate to.

– Me, blog #2

* * *

In Jewish tradition, there are four classical methods of Jewish biblical exegesis (PaRDeS). Of these, peshat (פשט) is widely considered the most straightforward method of interpreting biblical text, accounting for its historic and literary context. When I find myself bemused or skeptical of the medieval commentators’ conclusions, I take a look at the source text in question. What might the words have been intended to mean? How do the verses fit together?

Still, peshat interpretations don’t always satisfy me. As a Jew, my soul often wants something more from the text than a plain reading. After all, if the Torah is intended to hold meaning  for all Jews of all generations, it must, by definition, support disparate understandings and means of interpretation. The best Jewish educators are those who beckon us to engage intimately with Torah – to seek ourselves in its letters.

The exegetes often favor another of the four methods called drash (דרש). This is a comparative approach to biblical interpretation, aimed at expounding meanings based upon occurrences of similar words and phrases throughout the bible. While I may occasionally roll my eyes at conclusions derived by this method, I can always sink my teeth into them. Agree or disagree, they invite responses – the creativity of the rabbis encourages my own.

* * *

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PSALM 119:ד (verses 25-32)

[CLICK for glossary]

כה דָּבְקָה לֶעָפָר נַפְשִׁי; חַיֵּנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 25 My ‘self’ cleaveth unto the dust; vitalize me according to Thy dvar.
כו דְּרָכַי סִפַּרְתִּי, וַתַּעֲנֵנִי; לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ 26 I told of my drakhim, and Thou didst answer me; teach me Thy hukim.
כז דֶּרֶךְ-פִּקּוּדֶיךָ הֲבִינֵנִי; וְאָשִׂיחָה, בְּנִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ 27 Make me to understand the derekh of Thy pikudim that I may talk of Thy wonders.
כח דָּלְפָה נַפְשִׁי, מִתּוּגָה; קַיְּמֵנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 28 My ‘self’ drips away of sorrow; sustain me according to Thy dvar.
כט דֶּרֶךְ-שֶׁקֶר, הָסֵר מִמֶּנִּי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ חָנֵּנִי 29 Remove from me the derekh of falsehood; and grant me Thy Torah graciously.
ל דֶּרֶךְ-אֱמוּנָה בָחָרְתִּי; מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ שִׁוִּיתִי 30 I have chosen the derekh of faithfulness; Thine mishpatim have I set [before me].
לא דָּבַקְתִּי בְעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; יְהוָה, אַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי 31 I have cleaved unto Thy eidot; O Lord, put me not to shame.
לב דֶּרֶךְ-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ אָרוּץ: כִּי תַרְחִיב לִבִּי 32 I will run the derekh of Thy mitzvot, for Thou dost broaden my heart.

 

Thus far, I have been providing commentary and analysis on the stanzas of Psalm 119 based primarily upon my use of peshat. However, this week’s stanza strikes me differently. The peshat isn’t speaking to me.

I could point out that the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’ occurs five times in this stanza, emphasizing, perhaps, the Psalmist’s trajectory and ways of living and thinking.

I could point out that the stanza’s first verse (25) is structurally identical to its 4th verse (28). Both describe the Psalmist’s נפש (nefesh) – ‘self’ in a humbled, sorrowful state, as he petitions God for support according to His dvar (word / promise).

Dvar is one of Psalm 119’s keywords, as listed in Rabbi David Kimhi’s (1160-1235) specialized glossary for this Psalm, so it bears particular attention. As for ‘nefesh’, many translate it as ‘soul’, but I’ve encountered this term before (blog #28), and I now know, particularly in light of Ibn Ezra’s (1089–1167) commentary on verse 25, that:

דבקה, נפשי כמו עצמי, כמו: נשבע ה’ צבאות בנפשו Cleaved, my nefesh  [it’s] like my ‘self’, like [the verse]: “The Lord of hosts hath sworn by Himself” (Jer. 51:14).

 

I could point out that the first verse also connects to the 7th verse (31) of the stanza, for they share the word דָּבַק (davak) – ‘cleaved’. This may, perhaps, serve to underscore the theme of humility. In the first verse, the Psalmist’s ‘self’ is humbled by cleaving to the dust, and in the seventh verse, he asks that God not shame him. In this context, the implication may be that ‘cleaving unto God’s eidot’ is itself an act of humility and self-nullification.

Perhaps I could point out that these same three verses (the 1st, 4th, and 7th) are the only ones that don’t include the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the stanza’s structure: [A, B, B] – [A, B, B] – [A, B… ?], wherein each ‘B’ verse contains the word דֶּרֶךְ. The discerning reader may reasonably wonder at why the Psalmist would divide this stanza of eight verses into two sets of three [A, B, B] and a single, awkward set of two [A, B].

I could point out that a look at the very first verse of the following stanza (verse 33) reveals that this third set [A, B… ?] actually spills over into the next stanza and is thus comprised of three verses with the same [A, B, B] pattern. After all, this verse also contains the word דֶּרֶךְ:

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy hukim; and I will keep it eikev.
(Remember ‘eikev’ from last week?)

 

Anyway, I could, perhaps, do all of that, but the peshat of stanza ד doesn’t draw me. Where are the Psalmist’s enemies in this verse? Where is the action at?

* * *

For stanza ד, the action can be found in the medieval drash, for much of it focuses on the dramatic story of King David. I’ve been inclined to move past such commentaries, for nothing I’ve read in the verses of Psalm 119 suggests Davidic authorship, but as I’ve written (blog #33):

Traditional religious authorities attribute the Book of Psalms to King David who ruled the first Israelite Kingdom, but scholars suggest that the majority originated later – in the kingdom of Judah.

Clearly, the traditional notion makes for very compelling religious narrative; and one can well imagine why the Psalmist would want his works attributed to the most beloved King of Israel. After all, how better to justify the inclusion of this book in the Jewish canon?

I may be a skeptic, but the medieval commentaries on stanza ד are particularly unified in their drash: these verses, they claim, are from the quill of King David. While I can’t suspend doubt or reason, my imagination is now chomping at the bit. So let’s get into it with Rashi (1040-1105), Radak (1160-1235), and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769):

רש״י: חיני כדברך. כמו שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא טובה Rashi: Vitalize me according to Thy dvar. Like You promised me via Nathan the prophet [as an] act of grace.
רד״ק: דבקה. כשהיה בסכנה, והיה בורח מפני אבשלום, והיה קרוב למות כאילו נפשו דָּבְקָה, היה מתחנן לאל יתברך, ואומר חַיֵּנִי כִּדְבָרֶךָ שאמרת בתורתך (דברים לב, לט) אֲנִי אָמִית וַאֲחַיֶּה. או פירוש כִּדְבָרֶךָ שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא (שמואל-ב ז, יב), כִּי יִמְלְאוּ יָמֶיךָ, וְשָׁכַבְתָּ אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ Radak: Cleaved. When he [King David] was in danger, and he was fleeing from before [his son] Absalom and was close to death, as if his ‘self’ cleaved [unto the dust], he entreated the Blessed God, and said ‘vitalize me according to Thy dvar’, as you said in your Torah (Deut. 32:39), ‘I kill, and I make alive’. Or [an alternative] interpretation of ‘according to thy dvar’ is that which you promised me via Nathan the prophet (II Samuel 7:12): ‘When thy days are fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers…’
הרב אלטשולר: דבקה. שחה נַפְשִׁי ודָּבְקָה עד לֶעָפָר, ואשאל ממך חַיֵּנִי מהצרה כִּדְבָרֶךָ עלי על ידי נתן הנביא Rabbi Altschuler: Cleaved. My ‘self’ was bent over and cleaved unto the dust’, and I asked of you to vitalize me from [my] distress, according to your dvar to me, [which came] via Nathan the prophet.

 

See? Isn’t this drash so much more exciting than the peshat was? David is pursued by his son Absalom who means to kill him, and he cries out to God for salvation, reminding Him of the promise made to him by God’s prophet Nathan – that God would establish the kingdom of King David’s offspring after him.

(Actually, it’s interesting that Absalom was King David’s son no less so than Solomon who ultimately succeeded their father. If Absalom had killed King David and taken the throne, Nathan’s prophecy would still have been fulfilled.)

On the theme of fathers and sons, I find the following element of David’s story very powerful – even after Absalom plotted against his father; waged battle against him for the throne of Israel; and fully intended to have him killed, King David was utterly devastated by the tragic loss of his beloved son (II Samuel 19:1):

וַיִּרְגַּז הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַיַּעַל עַל-עֲלִיַּת הַשַּׁעַר–וַיֵּבְךְּ; וְכֹה אָמַר בְּלֶכְתּוֹ, בְּנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם, מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתִי אֲנִי תַחְתֶּיךָ, אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, thus he said: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

 

I know that Papa’s love for my brother and me was no less unconditional.

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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