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SIDIC Periodical XXVIII - 1995/1
The Psalms: Human Experience of Union with God (Pages 02 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

A Jewish reading of the Psalms - Merit and Miracles; The Case of Psalm 114
Fred Morgan


Some years ago my family celebrated a particularly special Pesach Seder. One of our guests was an elderly friend, sickly but of large spirit. in Biblical language a "God-fearing man". Our friend had suffered a severe coronary just weeks before the Seder. For some time it was not sure whether he would live or die. But he made it through, and now here he sat at our table.

We finished the meal and continued with the parts of the Seder service that follow the eating. Foremost in this section is the conclusion to the "Hallel psalms", 115-118. Our friend asked if he could be allowed to recite these psalms, as they held a special meaning for him. Of course, we agreed. Then he spoke the words from Psalm 116.

I love that the Lord shall hear my voice and supplications
Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him all my days.
The cords of death encompassed me, the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
But I called upon the name of the Lord; "I beseech thee, O Lord, deliver my soul..."
Return, O my soul, unto thy rest; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with me.
For Thou has delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living...
How can I repay unto the Lord all His bountiful dealings toward me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.

As our friend spoke these words from the psalm, all of us sitting around the table felt that we were being favoured with a precious gift. The words of the psalm so perfectly reflected our friend's experience; and remarkably, our friend had been able to recognise in his religious tradition just the words which would capture his feelings of relief, gratitude and renewed life: his "redemption". His reading of this psalm was both inspired and inspirational. This was a precious moment, and one which has always remained with us. Our friend is dead now, but at every Seder we celebrate, when we reach these words of the Hallel, we think of him, and he is with us once more.

The Psalms - Living Texts
This is one way in which the psalms operate, and have always operated, for people of a religious persuasion within the Jewish tradition. They are a source of catharsis and amazement, a peculiarly Jewish articulation of the deepest feelings which arise from universal human experience. Like other "living" texts they act as a link between biography and history, providing testimony that there is hope and succour in the midst of pain and trauma; that God's face, though hidden, continues to be "lifted up towards us".

A few literary examples will suffice to make this point. In her moving account of the death of her husband, When The Crying's Done (Robson Books, 1992), Jeannette Kupfermann says,

Until his illness Jacques had not been religious in the formal sense, although he believed deeply that God spoke to him, made His presence known, through his art, and that evidence of God was all around in nature itself. It was only during the terminal stages of his illness that he started to pray with me and listened to the Psalms, and it became a major part of his personal battle against the disease. For myself I know that I could not have got through the nights immediately preceding and following his death without my little book of Psalms and my constant prayers. (p.34)

ust prior to this passage, Ms Kupfermann refers to the well known example of Anatoly Scharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident, who mentions in his autobiography that his own book of Psalms enabled him to survive his many years of imprisonment as a "Refusnik" in the Soviet Union.

The American Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the popular When Bad Things Happen to Good People, designed a later book entitled Who Needs God (Simon and Shuster, 1989) aroud reflections on the Book of Psalms. Kushner comments,

I think I know which is God's favourite book of the Bible. I think it has to be the Book of Psalms. In the rest of the Bible, God speaks to us - through seers, sages and prophets, through the history of the Israelite people. But in the Psalms, we speak to Him. We tell Him of our love, our needs, our gratitude... The Psalms are more than love poems God wrote to himself. They are the emotional outpouring of people who learn to see the world through the eyes of religious faith. The world looks different to them than it does to the rest of us, and the inspired quality of their poetry flows from that difference. That is why, when I conduct a service or officiate at a funeral, I draw so heavily from the psalms. They express my most profound feelings more eloquently than any words I could come up with myself. (pp.38-39).

Kushner then goes on to analyze a particular psalm, Psalm 30, as the expression of a person who has recovered from a serious illness, and who when ill could not understand how this could be happening to him. Kushner remarks that the author of the psalm, having recovered from his illness, learns three things from the experience: that God's absence from our lives is temporary, that God's promise is not that we will not suffer disease and hardship but rather that He will be there to help us continue even in the face of our difficulties, and that it is the task of all the living to thank God for the benefits of our existence.

A different but broadly "existential", Jewish approach to the psalms is taken by Nahum Sarna in his recent book Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Schocken Books 1993). Sarna, a leading Bible scholar, devotes most of his book to explaining how the psalms were collected and ordered and how they survived through the centuries until the Biblical compilation was sealed. In a brief "Afterword" (pp.205-7), he delves more deeply into the character of the psalms. He sees them expressing a direct, personal approach to God. They reveal a belief that God is responsive to those who pray to Him, but only if the worshipper is honest and forthright. They declare a God who gives meaning to history and who governs the world with justice. There is a strong sense of social awareness and social conscience in the psalms, especially when they complain against false accusations and even when they plead for vindication against ones enemies.

Other Aspects of the Psalms
These remarks go beyond personal experience, to see in the psalms expressions of Jewish beliefs about the nature of the world and God's place within it. Even more, Sarna comments that, through the psalms, the joys and sorrows of the individual worshipper are seen to be shared by the entire community; for the psalms came to be what they are through their recitation in the Temple worship, within the congregation. The liturgical character of the psalms is an important aspect of their significance. Sarna also makes the point that people today are commonly alienated from both the Bible itself and the communal character of Biblical texts. So they are unable to use the psalms to deepen their sense of piety or amazement in the traditional way. He argues that the literary worth of the psalms is not enough to give them status for prayer. Interestingly, the most recent popular Jewish work on the psalms, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet's A Rabbi Reads the Psalms (SCM Press, 1994) is mainly occupied with a literary approach to specific psalms, and it even includes a delightful introduction to "Biblical Poetry for Beginners". There is plenty of deep feeling in Rabbi Magonet's approach to the psalms, nonetheless, but little evidence of their traditional liturgical and communal character. The liturgical role of the psalms, their active, repetitive recitation, creates a mood appropriate to prayer, a sense of humility in acceding to the obligations of tradition and in ceding control over one's time and activities to a higher power.

It is, perhaps a reflection of the many facets of Torah learning in Judaism that there are many different Jewish ways to read the psalms, focusing in turn on their existential, communal, liturgical, historical and theological aspects. What I would do in the remainder of this paper is to concentrate on one peculiarly Jewish approach, that is, the midrashic approach, to the reading of the psalms. In order to do this, I wish to concentrate on Psalm 114.

The various aspects just mentioned, liturgical, historical, theological, etc. will all enter into the midrashic approach; since these different aspects are not hermetically sealed. The distinctions we draw among the various features and characteristics of the psalm are only for purposes of analysis. In reality, the richness of the psalms, despite the superficial simplicity of much of their language, comes from the multiple layers of experience running through them. The midrashic approach is sensitive to the depth of significance in the psalms. It reads the psalms very much as it reads Torah, - as "living texts", "sacred texts".

My aim, then, is to show how Jewish tradition through the medium of Midrash Tehillim, reads Psalm 114. All midrash is interpretation, the interpretation of Scripture. Midrash may have other functions, but this is its primary role. A midrashic reading of a psalm is not "neutral" or "scientific". It offers us, the readers, a particular way of reading the psalm which in itself does not exclude other ways; on the contrary, it opens up the psalm to further readings, to new contexts.

My contention is that through the midrashic reading, Psalm 114 tells not only the story which is openly present in the words of the psalm, but another story which is concealed or hidden within the words. I call this midrashic reading "merit and miracles". The midrash story is rooted, so to speak, in the opening words of the psalm: "When Israel came forth out of Egypt." But it does not remain within that historical event. Like a tree, the midrashic reading of Psalm 114 spreads forth branches in many directions, each occupying its own space and direction, yet all ultimately linked back to the roots of the tree, through its "trunk": that is, the psalm itself.

The metaphor of the tree is, perhaps, especially appropriate here, because according to Jewish tradition Torah is itself called etz-chayim, a "Tree of Life". The midrashic reading of the psalm is also Torah, as Torah is understood within Judaism. The roots of this "Tree of Life" is the story of the exodus from Egypt, a story which has been called the "foundation myth" of the Jewish people. The psalm is the trunk of the tree, growing out of that root experience; and the midrashic readings of the psalm "branch out" in new directions from the trunk. Each branch is a partial reflection of the trunk, which itself is an expression of the root experience. All these parts together form the tree. The reader is like a person walking around the base of the tree in the forest; he looks up through the branches to the sky, first focusing on one branch, then on another; as he walks, the pattern of branches shifts and changes above him. This is what it is like reading Psalm 114 through the prism of midrash. This Scriptural tree, together with all the other trees of Scripture, make up the forest which is Jewish tradition.

A Midrashic Reading of Psalm 114
The opening verses of psalm 114 provide the text for our midrashic reading. On the face of it they seem simple and unambiguous:
1. When Israel came forth out of Egypt, the House of Jacob from a people of strange language;
2. Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion.

According to a straightforward reading of these two verses, the historical event of the Exodus provides the foundation for the settlement of the Jewish people in Canaan and the division of the kingdom after Solomon into the two nations Judah and Israel. There is a problem with the final phrase of verse 1, "from a people of strange language" (me'am lo'ez), which is not found anywhere else in Scripture. The phrase is normally taken in parallel with the reference to Egypt at the end of the first half of the verse, and translated with a meaning similar to "barbarians", that is, people who speak a foreign tongue.

Here is how our midrash deals with the opening verse. The midrash opens by quoting an "intersecting verse", a verse from elsewhere in Scripture which cuts across a key word or phrase in Psalm 114:1; in the way that a branch from one tree will cut across a branch from another tree in the forest. Here the "intersecting" verse is Psalm 105:38: "Egypt rejoiced when they went out". We the readers are surprised by the introduction here of this verse, we are not expecting to hear about Egypt rejoicing at the Exodus. Still less are we prepared for the mashal or parable (attributed to Rabbi Berarchiah) which follows: "This may be compared to a corpulent man who is riding on a donkey. This one says, When will I get down from this donkey! That one says, When will this one get down from me! I don't know who is more relieved when the time comes for him to alight! When David saw how they were rejoicing when they went out from Egypt, he began to praise the Exodus from Egypt and said, When Israel came forth out of Egypt..."

We can make a number of comments about this midrashic passage. First of all, the midrash identifies Psalm 114 as a song of praise, a celebration of joy (simchah). This identification fits well the role of Psalm 114 in Jewish liturgy as one of the "Hallel psalms" (113-118) associated with celebration of redemption. These psalms are sung in the synagogue at the three "pilgrim festivals", all linked by rabbinic tradition to the Exodus from Egypt, and also at the festival of Chanukah. The rabbis find the essence of Chanukah not in the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks, but in the miracle of the oil which lasted for eight days. Already here we see an implication of "miracles" in the liturgical context of the Psalm.

But the joy felt at the Exodus is oddly ascribed by the midrash. The joy is not one-sided; Egypt, too, rejoiced at being rid of Israel. Yet, it is not clear in the parable which of the two characters represents Israel and which represents Egypt; who is carrying whom. This is a feature of lived historical experience. Perhaps there are elements of both rider and donkey in the experience of each. In any case, this is a humorous story reminiscent of writers like Mark Twain. The hyperbole of the tale is driven home by the editorial comment in the midrash: "I don't know who was happier!" The sudden, unexpected intrusion of the midrashic narrator jars the reader, and reminds him that this is not to be taken too seriously. The lightness of the tone of the midrash reflects a lightness in the psalm itself, in verses 3-6:

3. The see saw it and fled; the Jordan turned backward.
4. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep.
5. What aileth thee O thou sea, that thou fleest? thou Jordan, that thou turnest backward?
6. Ye mountains, that ye skip like rams; ye hills, like young sheep?

The lightness of tone in the midrash, which matches the theme of joyous celebration in the psalm, is reinforced in a more subtle way by the word-play upon which the whole midrash depends. Where does the midrash find the idea of joyous celebration in the opening words of Psalm 114? It is in the phrase me'am lo'ez, which we translated earlier as "people of a strange language". I have already noted that translation is difficult here, because the expression appears only in this setting. In another psalm, Psam 68 (which is, in fact, introduced in the next section of Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 114), we find the phrase ve'ilzu lefanav "celebrate before him [God]." There is only a short distance of deliberate metathesis from the word 'ilzu to the word lo'ez! By this, the midrash transforms the "people of a strange language" into a "people celebrating", that is Egypt celebrating Israel's departure.

The impact of this, on a more abstract level, is to present the Exodus as an act which benefits all parties concerned, a source of joyful celebration for the entire world, since it is the "foundation myth" not only for the Jewish people but ultimately for all peoples. The fact that this is clearly not how Torah presents the exodus story in the Biblical Book of Exodus is of little import, so long as we keep in mind that the midrash is not concerned merely to retell the exodus story, but rather to tell another story which is rooted in the original exodus but is inspired by other, historically more recent concerns. These more recent interests themselves arose from developments over the first centuries of the Christian era: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Judea, the Hadrianic persecutions, the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the christianisation of Roman Palestine and the impact of exile (galut) on Jewish life. They represent the desire among some sections of the Jewish community to build fences of halakhot around Torah and with it the Jewish people, in order to protect them from foreign influences; and the desire among others within the community to discover in Torah a promise of God's redemption in a time and a world to come.

Midrash does not address such issues directly. Instead, it draws on the language of Scripture to bring new ideas and images into play in Jewish consciousness. The word "play" suggests that there is a kind of game going on. Indeed, midrash is a kind of game, a game played self- consciously by the midrashic authors. For example, Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 114 uses such phrases as, "I would be surprised by this interpretation...", "If someone whispers to you that the word Egypt isn't mentioned in this verse..."; phrases which, as before, bring the midrashic narrator playfully into his narration. But this game, if self- conscious, is also very serious. For Jewish communities of old it provided great pleasure in the study of Torah; and it also provided the concealed or hidden perspectives on history which were too often missed under the obvious layers of persecution, exile and despair. So long as there is a midrash on Psalm 114 about a fat man riding a donkey, or even more sober examples, then there is laughter within tears, hope within despair. All midrashim, even the most bleak, manage in the end to be about hope; thus reflecting an important rabbinic principle which may be identified within the psalms. The midrashim on Psalm 114 present us with a number of perspectives on hope, thus bringing hope alive. Take, for example, the following four midrashim, all again on the opening passage of Psalm 114: "When Israel came forth out of Egypt". These four midrashim shift our perspective on the foundation myth of the Exodus progressively from merit (zechut) to miracle (nes). 1

The first perspective focuses on the Jewish people in Egypt. It is captured by an ancient midrash which responds to the question, Why was Israel redeemed from Egypt? The midrash does not address this question, it simply quotes R.Elazar Hakkappar as saying: By the merit (zechut) of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not reveal their secrets [other versions: they did not inform on each other], they did not engage in wrongful sex. Each of these claims is demonstrated by the use of a Scriptural passage. For example, the idea that they did not change their names is proven by the fact that Torah uses the same family names before and after the exodus; that is, "Reuben" went down into Egypt, and "the Reubenites" are counted in the census after the exodus. [In another version of this midrash, it says explicitly that the people did not change their names from "Reuben" to "Rufus"; this has a very modern ring, especially for someone as myself named "Fred Morgan" - with a Germanic first name and a Welsh surname!] The proof for the people not changing their language (that is, from Hebrew!) is particularly interesting. The midrash quotes Psalm 113 vv 1b and 2a, thus breaking the parallelism of both verse 1 and verse 2 in turn, and so to speak creating a new parallelism: "the house of Jacob (went) from a people of a strange language, (but) Judah was for the holy tongue (that is, Hebrew)"! In order to arrive at this reading, the midrash must interpret the expression lekodsho "became His sanctuary", as "for His holy tongue". The fact that the phrase in verse 1 "a people of strange language" was (mis)- read "a celebrating people" in the earlier midrash about the fat man and the donkey is of no account here. The perspective has shifted, and now the Hebrew expression reverts to its normal meaning in order to make the parallel for the play on lekodsho.

This midrash asks about Israel's merit which enabled her to be brought out of Egypt. So, too, does the next midrash. But a remarkable shift in meaning takes place. R. Judah opens the "discussion" by suggesting that Israel was brought out of Egypt due to the merit (zechut) of two "bloods": the blood of the Pesach offering, and the blood of circumcision. These two commandments (mitzvot) both precede the exodus, and indeed they are linked in Exodus 12:43-48, where Torah states that only circumcised males may partake of the Pesach lamb. The "two bloods" reference in the midrash relies on Ezekiel 16:6, where it is said (twice!), "And I say to you, in your bloods [note the plural], live! In the Ezekiel context, the bloods referred to represent childbirth; perhaps there is a natural shift here in the context of our midrash to the birth of the Jewish people at the exodus from Egypt.

So far, so good. But the string of rabbinic opinions in this midrash continues, each carefully linked with proof texts from Scripture. These texts all play on the Hebrew root ra'ah "seeing", suggesting a visionary quality at play in the exodus. So R. Nechemiah says, Israel came out of Egypt "by the merit of the Torah which they will receive"; R. Joshua ben Levi says, "by the merit of the Tabernacle which they shall make"; R.Eliezer ben Jacob says, "by the merit of Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah" (Daniel's companions who survived the fiery furnace) - for, Eliezer goes on, they sanctified God's name in the furnace (by performing kiddush Hashem). Finally R.Aba bar Kahana says, "by the merit of Isaiah's generation", perhaps referring to their faithfulness at the time of the siege of Jerusalem. Then, the midrash continues, "When David saw this, with how many merits Israel went forth, he began praising the exodus from Egypt with, Hallelujah! When Israel came forth out of Egypt..."

This string of merits is not like the set of four merits which we saw in the first of these midrahsim. Those earlier merits referred to the actions of Israel while still in Egypt. This second string of merits represents in the main Israel's destiny, what will befall Israel in the "future history of the Bible". Yet they are still "merits", because each involves Israel's response in its time to God's name, even in the face of death and destruction, whether it be as individuals or as a whole people.

There is, truly, a bitter-sweet quality to this midrash: a pleasure at having a destiny, or a "future"; and at the same time a cold shudder when we realise the sort of destiny which is under review here. The celebratory joy of our opening parable has by now given way to a more sober quality, which is reflected in the final line of the second midrash about David praising the exodus as a kind of salute to Israel's faithfulness in the face of her destiny. That is to say, on every occasion that Jews congregate to chant the Hallel psalms, Israel's faithfulness is reaffirmed.

The next midrash in this series of four shifts our perspective still further. We now hear not of Israel and her merits but of God's role at the exodus. What was God's character in bringing Israel out of Egypt? Again a variety of views are given in the midrash, contributing to a picture which, in other religious traditions, would perhaps be a matter for deep theological reflection. The passage hinges on a verse from Deuteronomy 4:34: "Did not God try [ha-nissah] to come to take to him a nation from within a nation?" First, God is compared in the midrash to a warrior who "goes down" [reminiscent of the fat man on the donkey] to battle, "whether to defeat or to be defeated". Then God is compared to a man who attends the birth of a calf from its mother "in its time"; thus He brought forth Israel from Egypt "a nation from within a nation". Next God is compared to a blacksmith who, with pain to himself, draws forth fire from the furnace without the aid or intervention of tongs or rags; so, dare we say it (kivyachol), God drew forth Israel with pain to Himself. Finally, God is described as restoring life to those who were drowning. These images range from the masculine images of the warrior and the blacksmith, to the feminine images of childbirth (bringing life from the womb) and suffering pain in the act of creation. The cumulative effect of this midrashic reading of Psalm 114 is to shift our perspective from Israel to God; or, in terms of the "foundation myth" of the Exodus, from merit to miracle. What does it mean to speak of God's intervention, whether in the history of a people, or in the life of an individual? How does the world, - including the very images we use to speak of God's action, - appear to us in the light of His miracle- working in creating Israel? How does the Exodus represent God "trying" Himself? Can God redeem a people without causing pain to His creation?

The fourth midrash in this series focuses entirely on the aspect of miracle: the miracle of the division of the Sea. This midrash is again an ancient one, extant in many versions. We are told that ten miracles (nissim) took place at the Sea. God made the sides of the Sea into walls, each wall had a tower and each tower a guard; and there were angels protecting Israel from danger. The waters swung over like vaults or arches and then froze. He made them like highways; they were like pastures with sweet water for the herds and animals; they were like heaps of straw, then like the straw-covered pathways between haystacks. The Sea crumbled from dryness, God cut paths through the seabed. He made it like dry ground, like a grass covered valley where Israel herded her animals. Each of these extraordinary scenes right up to the pastoral scene of shepherds and their flocks at the climax, is demonstrated by Scriptural quotations which are taken from the prophets, from hagiographa and from the Book of Exodus (the "Song at the Sea"). These scenes offer yet another pespective on the opening verse to psalm 114: "When Israel came forth out of Egypt..." - it was a time of miracles!

The midrashic perspectival reading which I have outlined here ties Psalms 114 to a key theological issue within Judaism: what is the source of our salvation? Is our redemption due to our own merit, or to God's miracle-working power? In other religious traditions, this might be expressed as a debate over the power of works versus the power of faith. The answer within the midrashic reading of Psalm 114 must be, it depends on your perspective. On the one hand, unless the Jewish people had retained their identity as a people in Egypt, practising "mitzvot", and finding a common sense of destiny and purpose through the worship of God then the exodus from the midst of Egypt could not have occurred. There would have been no identifiable "people" for God to redeem. On the other hand, if God had not performed the miracles of the plagues, the dividing of the Sea and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, then there would have been no redemption for the people. The people would not have become a "holy nation" but they would have remained simply a "mixed multitude" without a shared destiny or a shared sense of the divine.

These reflections bring us back to the question with which we began: how do Jews read the psalms today? In common with peoples of other religious traditions influenced by the Bible, they see in the psalms the expression of their own personal hopes, struggles and experiences. But these hopes, struggles and experiences are not held by the individual alone. He or she is a member of a community, which has its own history, which phrases its questions and concerns in its own way, which has developed its own modes for addressing God and for creating settings appropriate to the worship of God. For a Jewish reader who has not become alienated from the Bible the psalms provide a forest of opportunities to explore one's individuality within the context of Jewish community and tradition. Though the psalms do articulate our deepest existential questions, they do not offer solutions to these questions; still less do they provide directions for living. Rather, they offer us the means to uncover the hidden stories of our lives - the stories of hope which are shared with our companions in the Jewish tradition. They inspire us, and in turn are inspired by us; not through their words alone, but from the contexts of usage and reading which have flowered through the many centuries of Jewish existence.

Fred Morgan is Rabbi of the North-West Surrey Reform Synagogue and teaches at the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College in London.


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