David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 41

I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z"l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.
I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z"l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.

A mourner’s notes:

  • Some unsolicited wisdom for the kaddish blogger:

There’s no way to really preserve a person when they’ve gone and that’s because whatever you write down it’s not the truth, it’s just a story. Stories are all we’re ever left with in our head or on paper: clever narratives put together from selected facts, legends, well edited tall tales with us in the starring roles.

– Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts, p. 413

  • My tefillin and tallit have taken up residence at shul. I know in advance that I’ll be back the next day so why not leave them? They only come home if I’ll be attending a different minyan the following day for logistical reasons. (I brought my tefillin home for Pesach because we don’t use them in Israel during the holiday.)
  • On at least two occasions, I have been convinced that I would get to shul several minutes too late for the earliest recitations of kaddish, but luckily there was no minyan until I walked through the door. This is male privilege.
  • Somebody new has joined our minyan: a male mourner who is comfortable at the helm. He has been leading services for the past several weeks, relieving the rest of us of awkward, suggestive stares. Also, I like his pacing and enunciation.
  • My friend Arielle gave birth to a son last week. As a mourner, I will attend the brit milah, but I will not remain for the festive meal.
  • My friend David’s daughter will be celebrating her bat mitzvah in June. I will have completed eleven months of kaddish recitation by then, but the event will be held during my twelve months of mourning so I will not be attending.
  • I have already missed two festive occasions on account of the religious restrictions associated with being a mourner. 1) A post-wedding celebration in Haifa of a friend from the USA. 2) An anniversary celebration of two friends from my minyan.
  • I miss Papa. Pesach is the holiday that most reminds me of him (blog #10). Beyond images of my father at our family seders, I most vividly recall the taste and texture his matzah brei, which I continue to prepare myself and enjoy annually at home (salted this year with my tears).
  • Today’s post marks the last of my commentaries on the stanzas of Psalm 119 in Papa’s memory.

* * *

How do I feel about completing my study of these Psalm 119 stanzas?

It feels liberating. As of today, I’m no longer bound to their religious themes, keywords, and language patterns. While I’ve never known what I would write about in any given ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ post before putting my fingers to the keyboard, I’ve felt fettered to Psalm 119 since choosing to embark upon it.

On the other hand, I’m still surprised every time I complete a post and realize that it reads coherently. How haven’t I run out of steam yet? Where will I get my next idea from? What more is there to write about? In this, Psalm 119 has been a ‘Godsend’ (see what I did there?). For eleven posts now, I haven’t had to worry about coming up with prompts or subject-matters – I’ve needed only to flow from the stanzas.

And… I’m proud of my commentary. So long, 119; it’s been real.

* * *

This leg of my kaddish odyssey ends with stanza ה (hey) of Psalm 119. Even as I type, I feel wistful.

Stanza ה is variegated. I’ve been sorting through these stanzas by keywords, but no other verses have I splashed with so much color-coding as these final eight. In part, it’s me. This time around, the Psalmist’s repeated use of particular word roots marks only the beginning of my exploration… I’ve also identified and linked together additional terms according to their themes.

The Psalmist’s overtones and undertones do resonate.

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ה (verses 33-40)

[CLICK for glossary]

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the derekh of Thy hukim; and I will cherish it at every step.
לד הֲבִינֵנִי, וְאֶצְּרָה תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֶשְׁמְרֶנָּה בְכָל-לֵב 34 Give me understanding, that I cherish Thy Torah and observe it with [my] whole heart.
לה הַדְרִיכֵנִי, בִּנְתִיב מִצְוֺתֶיךָ: כִּי-בוֹ חָפָצְתִּי 35 Make me to tread [hadrikheini] in the path of Thy mitzvot for therein do I desire.
לו הַט-לִבִּי, אֶל-עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; וְאַל אֶל-בָּצַע 36 Incline my heart unto Thy eidot, and not to unjust gain.
לז הַעֲבֵר עֵינַי, מֵרְאוֹת שָׁוְא; בִּדְרָכֶךָ חַיֵּנִי 37 Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and vitalize me in Thy drakhim.
לח הָקֵם לְעַבְדְּךָ, אִמְרָתֶךָ— אֲשֶׁר, לְיִרְאָתֶךָ 38 Fulfill Thy imrah for Thy servant, regarding the fear of Thee.
לט הַעֲבֵר חֶרְפָּתִי, אֲשֶׁר יָגֹרְתִּי: כִּי מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ טוֹבִים 39 Turn away my disgrace, which I fear; for Thine mishpatim are good.
מ הִנֵּה, תָּאַבְתִּי לְפִקֻּדֶיךָ; בְּצִדְקָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 40 Behold, I have longed for Thy pikudim; vitalize me in Thy righteousness.

 

Every verse but one makes reference to God’s commandments: hukim, Torah, mitzvot, eidot, imrah, mishpatim, and pikudim. This is the first I’ve encountered a stanza that doesn’t repeat a single mitzvah-related keyword, as if the Psalmist is projecting an image of the Divine Law onto the text through a rotating kaleidoscope.

* * *

Verse 37 is the verse that unlocks this stanza for me.

The keyword is drakhim (plural), which Radak’s (1160–1235) glossary defines as: ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Drakhim does not refer to halakha (Jewish Law) per se; and the Malbim (1809-1879) explicates:

בם חייני. על ידי שאראה שדרכי ה’ חסד ורחמים וחנינה ואלמד ללכת בדרכיו לחיות בהם Vitalize me in them’. By virtue of my seeing that God’s drakhim (ways) are kindness, mercy, and amnesty; and my learning to walk in His drakhim [in order] to live by them.

 

‘Drakhim’, says the Malbim, refers not to Divine commandedness. It is a matter of morality, and as it turns out, derekh (root: ד-ר-כ), is the only keyword of Psalm 119 repeated in stanza ה. We find this root thrice – in verses 33,  35, 37 – in every other verse of the stanza. One might reasonably expect to find it again in 39, but no dice.

* * *

Let’s take another look at verse 37; there’s a lot of action. This verse alone includes three of our repeating terms. The first, as mentioned, is ד-ר-כ, the second is vitalize me (חַיֵּנִי), and the third is Turn away (הַעֲבֵר). Notably, these latter terms are repeated only in the second half of the stanza, as is another concept: fear.

Here I take creative license. The roots of the words for fear in stanzas 38 and 39 are not the same: י-ר-א in verse 38 and י-ג-ר in verse 39. Still, let’s step back for a moment: Way-tread, way-tread, way-tread, turn away!, vitalize!, fear!, turn away!, fear!, vitalize!

* * *

There are two more theme-pieces to our puzzle.

The first is the unambiguous repetition of the word לֵב (lev), meaning heart, in verses 34 and 36 in the fist half of the stanza.

The second theme-piece is conceptual: desire-value. I didn’t notice this right away because there are four separate roots that play into it: 1) Verses 34 & 35. Root: א-צ-ר; Store, Treasure. 2) Verse 35. Root: ח-פ-צ; Pleasure, Desire. 3) Verse 36. Root: ב-צ-ע; Unjust gain; Profit. 4) Verse 40. Root ת-א-ב; Long for, Desire.

Clicking these pieces into place produces the following picture:

  • The 1st half (33-36): Way-tread, desire-value, desire-value, heart, way-tread, desire-value, heart, desire-value.
  • The 2nd half (37-40): turn away!, vitalize!, way-tread, fear!, turn away!, fear!, desire-value, vitalize!

One could write the stanza’s meta-story along these themes, and I find it striking that none of the exegetes pursue a similar line of analysis. The medievals’ collective ear was tone-deaf to the Psalmist’s poetry, else they simply considered approaches such as mine frivolous.

* * *

Let’s zoom back in on the root: ד-ר-כ, which is repeated thrice in our stanza – in verses 33,  35, 37. The sequence breaks in verse 39 – why? Derekh refers to God’s ‘way’, which is one of kindness and mercy, per the Malbim. We’ve followed this ד-ר-כ trail straight to verse 39, but an abrupt shift in theme and tone awaits us: turn away!, fear! 

What is the Psalmist hoping to turn away from? What is it that he fears?

– HIS OWN DISGRACE –

In their interpretations of stanza ה, the exegetes refer us once again to the story of King David (blog #36). Recall that it was David, according to most Jewish religious authorities, who authored the holy Psalms (blog #33); and the great Radak lends his support to this narrative, reading verses 38 and 39 as a unit:

VERSE 38

הקם. מה שהבטחתני להקים המלכות לבני אחרי ‘Fulfill’. That which You promised me – to establish the kingship for my sons after me >>>
אשר ליראתך. אשר יהיו דבקים ליראתך ‘Regarding the fear of Thee’. >>> who will be attached to [their] fear of You.

VERSE 39

העבר חרפתי. לפי שאמר בפסוק שלפני זה להקים ההבטחה לבניו אחריו, בקש שלא יהיה לשטן לו אותו העון שהוא חרפתו לבניו ואע”פ שאמר לו גם ה’ העביר חטאתך מכל מקום בקש מהאל ית’ שיעבירו גם מבניו ‘Turn away my disgrace’. As it is said in the verse that comes before, this [means] to fulfill the promise to his sons after him. He requested that the Satan wouldn’t [attribute] the same transgression that was his [King David’s] disgrace to his sons; and even though God told him He would “turn away your sin,” he still requested something more from God – that He would transfer it [David’s transgression] away from his sons.

 

King David’s great sin, alluded to by Radak, was committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband; and it is this wicked misdeed that the Psalmist juxtaposes with God’s derekh of kindness and mercy.

This is what the Psalmist is likely referring to in verse 36 when he writes of ‘unjust gain’ at the end of the 1st half of our stanza, after he writes so earnestly of cherishing God’s derekh and Torah and desiring the path of His mitzvot.

The terrible brush with unjust gain brings the early theme of desire-value to its abrupt end, leading to turn away!, fear!, and the Psalmist’s desperate entreaty to God: vitalize me!

* * *

Ultimately, rising above his shameful disgrace, the Psalmist rediscovers longing in verse 40, and this time for God’s pikudim, which, according to Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are: ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’.

Of course, we know that Radak’s glossary is hardly peshat (blog #36), but then neither is reading the story of King David into the Psalms. In fact, I mention it here purely for poetic reasons. As noted earlier, one of Psalm 119’s early themes is ‘heart’ (לב), which occurs only in verses 34 and 36 and then disappears in the face of turn away! and fear! only to reemerge with the greatest of subtlety at the conclusion of the stanza.

In this reading, we find that the Psalmist’s desire, now directed at the Divine commandments most natural to his heart, finds his confidence restored, as he appeals through deep faith to God’s great righteousness.

* * *

One might say (as Radak does) that pikudim represent the most basic of Jewish values, those Divine behaviors that come most naturally to humankind. Simple, isn’t it? The trick, as we know all too well from experience, is that not all human hearts are drumming in harmony.

Perhaps… if we observe the lives of those most naturally kind and merciful (as the Malbim put it – remember?) who lead their lives unbound by supposedly Divine imperatives, we might begin to better comprehend the concept of God’s pikudim.

Each day I recite; I write; I remember and appreciate my exceedingly humble, kind and merciful father. (Papa would have been horribly embarrassed at my extolling his virtues for all the world to read.)

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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