David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 37

Traditional Jewish prayer is fast-paced, and there’s too much of it. Not only do I fail to derive meaning from reeling off prayer after prayer after prayer as quickly as possible in an effort to keep up, but doing so in fact detracts from my ability to find meaning in those prayers I do recite.

If I’m not the one leading services, I don’t attempt to run through all the prayers along with the congregation. I do the basics: the Shema, the Amidah, and (obviously) the Kaddish. Beyond these, I recite whatever moves me, or else I stay silent.

There are some prayers I can’t bring myself to utter at all, including joyful ones like the celebratory Hallel at the start of every new Hebrew month and the upbeat Kabbalat Shabbat service at the cusp of the Sabbath. Their familiar tunes continue to draw me. I fondly remember myself singing and swaying to these prayers in years gone by; but festiveness seems not to become me.

Two weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself singing the Kabbalat Shabbat tunes for the first time in many months. Maybe it was the whiskey, I thought – I’d been sipping Jameson in the kitchen that Friday afternoon while cooking for Shabbat.

Then, the following week, it so happened that the holiday of Purim fell on Friday in Jerusalem (Shushan Purim); and tradition encourages us to drink alcohol on this day. Why not? I thought. It worked last week.

I came to shul on Friday afternoon, led mincha before Shabbat, and returned to my seat for the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Unexpectedly, I spent the entire service crying, wiping my eyes with the back of my sleeve to avoid attention. So much for alcohol.

* * *

Consolation is elusive.

My writing makes the strictures of Jewish religious tradition more palatable to me, but only just. Producing more; investing more; pushing the limits of my creativity, intellect, and soul – is numbing the pain, but my experience increasingly reflects the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’. Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant… will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns.

I pour more of myself into my writing, but the process has been yielding lower incremental relief per-post. In my darker moments, the hours I’ve spent on this project feel like a ‘Sunk Cost’, but I recognize the voices of my grief and self-doubt in such ruminations.

In truth, my writing continues giving me strength enough to sustain my traditional mourning practices:

1) I feel myself more than a mere cog in the apparatus of Jewish tradition by providing this public platform for my grappling and incredulity. 2) Rote prayers and rituals are imbued with some greater degree of meaning through my personal reflections. 3) It comforts me to feel that I am honoring my father to the best of my ability. 4) Papa deserved (deserves?) no less than this from me. 5) My daughter deserves no less than this from me. 6) Our tradition owes no less than this to us.

* * *

This week, I am exploring the stanza of Psalm 119 that represents the final Hebrew letter of Papa’s name: Alexander (אלכסנדר).

Originally, this was the extent of what I had intended to study; but I realize now that the tradition goes a bit further. Formally, he was Alexander son of Mosheh (אלכסנדר בן משה), amounting to four additional stanzas (ב, מ, ש, ה). It is also accepted practice to recite the stanzas corresponding to neshama (נשמה) – ‘soul’ at the gravesite, but thankfully these four letters are already included in ben Mosheh (בן משה).

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ר (verses 153-160)

[CLICK for glossary]

Semi-stanza ר-A

קנג רְאֵה-עָנְיִי וְחַלְּצֵנִי: כִּי-תוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 153 O see mine affliction, and rescue me; for I do not forget Thy Torah.
קנד רִיבָה רִיבִי, וּגְאָלֵנִי; לְאִמְרָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 154 Argue my argument, and redeem me; vitalize me for the sake of Thy imrah.
קנה רָחוֹק מֵרְשָׁעִים יְשׁוּעָה: כִּי חֻקֶּיךָ, לֹא דָרָשׁוּ 155 Salvation is far from the wicked; for they seek not Thy hukim
קנו רַחֲמֶיךָ רַבִּים יְהוָה; כְּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ חַיֵּנִי 156 Great are Thy compassions, O Lord; vitalize me according to your mishpatim.

 

Semi-stanza ר-B

קנז רַבִּים, רֹדְפַי וְצָרָי; מֵעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, לֹא נָטִיתִי 157 Many are my pursuers and my adversaries; yet have I not turned aside from Thy eidot.
קנח רָאִיתִי בֹגְדִים, וָאֶתְקוֹטָטָה— אֲשֶׁר אִמְרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁמָרוּ 158 I saw them that were traitors, and quarreled with them; because they observed not Thy imrah.
קנט רְאֵה, כִּי-פִקּוּדֶיךָ אָהָבְתִּי; יְהוָה, כְּחַסְדְּךָ חַיֵּנִי 159 O see how I love Thy pikudim; vitalize me, O Lord, according to Thy kindness.
קס רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת; וּלְעוֹלָם, כָּל-מִשְׁפַּט צִדְקֶךָ 160 Thy first utterance is truth; and all Thy righteous mishpat is for ever.

 

Several elements of this stanza pique my interest, but I’m unsure of how they connect to one another. If I grind them up together, will I get a sausage?

* * *

Much like the previous stanzas that I’ve read through, Radak’s (1160-1235) glossary of keywords for Psalm 119 is immediately helpful in identifying patterns among the verses in stanza ר. Every verse includes one of the keywords, but only two of the keywords are repeated: mishpat (מִשְׁפַּט) in verses 156 & 160 and imrah (אִמְרָה) in verses 154 & 158. This double repetition suggests two semi-stanzas of four verses, as in previous stanzas. The second verse of each semi-stanza contains mishpat and the fourth verse of each semi-stanza contains imrah.

Two other words are repeated more than once, both of which occur three times in this stanza. ‘See’ (רְאֵה) is found in verses 153, 158, & 159; and ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) is in verses 154, 156, & 159.

Twice (153 & 159), the Psalmist asks God to ‘see’ something (verses 153, 159), by which he expresses his hope that God shall take active note of the Psalmist’s affliction and devotion. This sheds light upon the language of ‘I saw them that were traitors’ in verse 158. In my reading, the Psalmist didn’t simply ‘see’ the traitors in passing – more likely, he was actively looking for them. Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) himself sees the parallel between verses 158 & 159:

ראה – כנגד ראיתי; וחיני – כנגד ואתקוטטה ‘See’ (159) – opposite ‘I saw’ (158); and ‘vitalize me’ (159) – opposite ‘I quarreled’ (158).

 

Now, if I were to write my own glossary for Psalm 119, the word ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) would be among the first entries. This term has been included in nearly every stanza I’ve explored, but never more than once, let alone three times, as in our current stanza. Also, unlike ‘see’ (ראה), which begins with a ‘ר’ and finds its natural habitat in stanza ר, ‘vitalize me’ begins with a ‘ח’, suggesting that the Psalmist emphasized it here deliberately. In their commentaries on verse 154, Radak and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769) write:

הרב אלטשולר: לאמרתך. חַיֵּנִי לקיים אמרתך, ולא בעבור הנאות עולם הזה Rabbi Altschuler: ‘For the sake of your imrah’. Vitalize me to fulfill your imrah, and not for the pleasures of this world.
רד״ק: ריבהלאמרתך חיני. בעבור אמרתך, כלומר לשמור אמרתך אבקש החיים, לא לתענוג העולם Radak: ‘Argue… for the sake of your imrah vitalize me’. For your imrah, that is to say – to guard your imrah I ask for life, not for the pleasure of the world.

 

The Psalmist, you see, is only in it for God’s imrah.

Recall that imrah is found twice in this stanza – in verses 154 & 158, and in each of these instances, there is reference to some form of argument. However, the Psalmist is being remarkably subtle here.

Of these two verses, the easier one to parse is 158. The Psalmist writes that he quarreled with those who were traitors to God’s imrah, using the verb לְהִתְקוֹטֵט, which can also mean ‘to tussle’ or ‘to come to blows’. This is straightforward.

Verse 154 requires a more careful read. My translation of ‘רִיבָה רִיבִי’ as ‘argue my argument’ is most precise, but this is not how mainstream translations elect to “tussle” with this phrase; they air, rather, on the side of the literary. ‘Champion my cause’ and ‘Plead my cause’ both capture the Psalmist’s intent, but distract from the definitions of ‘רִיב’: quarrel, feud, dispute, contention, etc…

It bears noting that the rabbis incorporated the language of verses 153-154 into the eighth benediction of the weekday Amidah prayer, which is recited three times daily:

רְאֵה בְעָנְיֵנוּ. וְרִיבָה רִיבֵנוּ. וּגְאָלֵנוּ מְהֵרָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. כִּי גּואֵל חָזָק אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, גּואֵל יִשרָאֵל See our affliction, “plead our cause”, and redeem us soon for your name’s sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer. Blessed are You, Lord, the Redeemer of Israel.

 

Essentially, the stanza is drawing a distinction between two forms of argument. In the first scenario, I ask that someone make the case for my cause. In the latter, I am nearly at fisticuffs in defense of my principles. Perhaps the Psalmist is suggesting that one must seek out another’s advocacy, lest the best of the second person’s intentions be misapprehended and lead to unwanted conflict.

A terribly unfortunate and mutually crushing quarrel with my father was among several factors that precipitated my religious crisis some three years before Papa’s death. In the following years, we both moved beyond that dispute, but the memory of it hurts me to this day. I’m sorry for hurting you, Papa.

* * *

One final thought:

Let’s take a look at the concluding verse of the stanza. Verse 160 is among several, which are recited before the shofar is blown on Rosh HaShanah; and its first three words were also included in the liturgical poem Anim Zemirot, sung on Shabbat.

It is not entirely clear from the text itself what exactly is meant by ‘רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת’. Rashi’s (1040-1105) translation is ‘The beginning of Your word is true’, which I think is most accurate. Rashi’s analysis lends support to Radak and Ibn Ezra who conclude that this is a reference to the first of the Ten Commandments: that God is the Lord our God (note: the “Ten Commandments” in Hebrew are known as the “Ten Utterances”). Ibn Ezra puts it most simply:

ראש – תחלת דבור שצויתני הוא האמת. ורבי ישועה אמר: רמז לדבור אנכי בהר סיני First / beginning – The beginning of the Utterance that you commanded me is the Truth. And Rabbi Yeshua said: This hints at the Utterance ‘I am [the Lord thy God]’ at Mount Sinai.

 

In my mind, as a son in mourning and as the father of a little girl, I think: how far beyond powerful are the earliest words we speak to our children.

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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