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David Walk
David Walk

Wonderful World

There are many Psalms which glorify God’s Creation, but I don’t know of any that does it with more enthusiasm and power than BORCHI NAFSHI, chapter 104. This remarkable poem is recited on Rosh Chodesh, because it describes the celestial bodies which control our concept of time and date. It is also recited on Shabbat afternoon from Shabbat Breishit until Shabbat HaGadol, because it describes the seven days of Creation. So, this song of David is influential within Jewish consciousness, and is so transcendent that it’s worthy of our careful attention.  

This lyric poem actually has a twin, Psalm 103. They both begin and end with the powerful statement: BORCHI NAFSHI, Bless the Lord, O my soul (perhaps ‘being’)! Roberts Alter describes the difference between the two pieces: (Psalm 103) is a meditation on God’s providential justice, (Psalm 104) is an ecstatic celebration of God’s dominion over the vast panorama of creation. 

There are attempts to combine praise for both God’s natural power over the Cosmos and Divine spiritual transcendence achieved through Torah and Mitzvot, like Psalm 19. However, in our instance the two realms are clearly separated and lauded separately. 

Our Psalm begins and ends with the famous declaration: BORCHI NAFSHI! This is usually translated: Bless the Lord, O my soul. I actually prefer Alter’s: Bless, O my being, the Lord! The word NAFSHI describes the essence of my living self. King David’s point is that I must put my entire being into this endeavor to praise God. 

Verses 1-6 relate to the First Day of Creation, and they begin with the creation of light, which cloaks God like a garment and spreads throughout the Cosmos like a veil. Then there is a description of the separation of the celestial realm from the earthly abode, and has water covering all of the lower world. 

Day two dawns in verse 7 with the waters over this earth being firmly established in the seas. These waters are never to encroach beyond their designated borders. Day two is about separation into distinct domains.  Unlike the description of the creation in Breishit, our Psalm will extol God’s work for the benefit each effort will bestow on later arrivals. So, in verse 11 the water satisfies the thirst of all living things, even wild donkeys. King David, as a former shepherd, might have been assumed to care only for domesticated animals, but he honors God’s concern for all life. 

Vegetation appears on day three, verses 13-18. Again, we’re shown the eventual impact of botany on future creations. In verse, we’re informed that animals can just eat the natural produce all around, but humanity will work hard to make grasses (forerunners of grain) into consumable products. King David also states clearly that the most important agricultural products will be wine, olive oil, and bread (verse 15). That was certainly true of the economy of Biblical Israel. 

On day four, the heavenly hosts of our sky appear. This verse is central to our song being the Psalm for Rosh Chodesh, for ‘the moon was made to mark the seasons (festivals)’, verse 19. God established the seven-day week and sanctified Shabbat. We (or our surrogates, the Sanhedrin) calculated our calendar, which sets the sanctity of the holidays. We’re also told that predators own the night, while humanity labors through the day. Our post-Edison world is different. 

The shortest exposition is day five, verses 25 & 26. We’re told that the oceans teem with life, and are awesome in their immense measure. However, mankind is able to transverse them in ships. 

Curiously, day six never explicitly mentions the creation of humanity. It is clearly describing mankind when it states, ‘They all look to You expectantly (verse 27)’ or ‘When You hide Your face they are in panic (verse 28).’ It is only humanity who look to God with expectation and have the hope of ‘they will be created anew (verse 30).’ We are the pinnacle of Creation, but should be humble about it. 

The last five verses are the splendor of the Psalm, just as Shabbat is the splendor of the week. This description of humanity’s praise of our Creator begins in verse 31 with a verse which our prayerbook drew upon for the famous paragraph we recite before ASHREI every day: May the Lord’s glory endure forever; may God rejoice in Hie works. Perhaps: Let Your glory fill time and space.  

We continue to describe our attempts to exalt God: As long as I live, I will sing to God; I will hymn to God while I breathe (verse 32). But maybe: I live Your song; my God, I am Your tune (Rav Zalman Shachter-Shalomy). This may be the statement of purpose for the entire book of Psalms. 

Our closing verses emphasize the contemplative nature of our Shabbat. King David declares: May my meditation (conversation, prayer, SICHI) be sweet to You; I am content in the Lord (verse 34). My contentment or joy (SIMCHA) in God parallels God’s SIMCHA in the Creation from verse 31. Shabbat is a time to be in synch with God. 

The ultimate verse of our profound poem is, perhaps, the most famous. It’s been made into popular tunes by many Jewish artists. It declares a sincere hope for the future of God’s Creation: May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more. This well-known plea and prayer of King David became the topic of family debate in a famous Talmudic tale: 

There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What are you thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is what is written. One should pray for an end to their sins, not for the demise of the sinners. (Berachot 10a) 

Even though the grammar of the verse supports the interpretation of Rebbe Meir, I cheer for the sentiment of Berurya. 

Our opus ends as it began: Bless the Lord, O my being! Then King David adds, ‘Halelu-Kah!’ I add, ‘Amen!’ 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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