We’ve spent a lot of time with Asaf. Now I want to look at some of his colleagues.
שיר מזמור we’ve been interpreting as a song with musical accompaniment and מחלת could be from מחול, a dance or a musical instrument, but this perek is not a happy one. It’s really a קינה; it doesn’t even end on a happy note. So Rashi connects it to מחלה, illness:
And לְעַנּוֹת is not from ענה, ”call out“, but from ענוי, ”affliction“. The subtlety is the dagesh in the nun:
And a משכיל is more of a lecture than a song:
So I would understand this כותרת as “a lecture by Heiman of sickness and affliction, set to music by the other בני קרח”.
But what is האזרחי? It means “native”. Ibn Ezra says it’s a title related to Heiman’s role:
In general, the Levites lived throughout the country, and only came to the משכן or later the מקדש intermittently:
But Heiman was appointed as part of the permanent staff, so he was an “אזרח” in the משכן.
But Rashi says we’ve got the wrong Heiman:
We know nothing about these בני זרח except that they were famous in the time of שלמה:
And Rashi connects them to the authors of תהילים (at least two of them; we have nothing attributed to כַלְכֹּל or דַרְדַע, and I don’t know why זמרי didn’t make it to the all-time smartest list. There’s too much we don’t know).
The Seder Olam says they were in fact נביאים, from Israel’s time in Egypt:
And this idea, that the sons of זרח were חכמים, is reflected in an aggadah that explains Saul’s reaction to David and the killing of Goliath:
The line of מלכות goes through פרץ בן יהודה. בני זרח were the חכמים, the בני מחול. Before David slew Goliath, he was the singer and lute player, apparently מזרח אתי, obviously no threat to Saul’s reign.
And there’s a third understanding of who Heiman was:
But the subsequent gemara has a problem with this:
And concludes that the midrashic reading of ספר מלכים, with Heiman as Moshe, has nothing to do with the authorship of תהילים:
But still, we are left with two Heimans, each a plausible author of our perek.
Maybe we can reconcile the opinions, with an observation about names in תנ״ך and the agaggah:
So a wise man in the time of the חשמונאים was the מרדכי of his generation. We see from ספר מלכים that the Heiman from the time of שעיבוד מצרים was famous for his wisdom and words. It’s possible that “Heiman” from David’s time was a sort of stage name to evoke the older נביא, and perhaps this perek is an adaptation of a much older work.
At least it’s a nice story.
This perek is an anguished cry to ה׳. Heiman starts by saying he cries out day and night, echoing the words of the תוכחה:
He describes himself as full of trouble and cannot bear any more, almost dead (נחשבתי עם יורדי בור). But then it’s worse: he begs for death when he can be free (במתים חפשי), because then he will no longer have to deal with troubles that G-d Himself gives him. He acknowledges that המה מידך נגזרו—this is all G-d’s faulr. If he were dead then לא זכרתם עוד.
ה׳ put him in the depths, under the waves (interesting that “breakers” is the same word in Hebrew, משבריך). But we don’t know why. What did he do wrong? Heiman doesn’t say. All we know is עלי סמכה חמתך.
Then סלה; hold that thought.
And it gets worse again. Not only is he in pain but he has lost his friends: הרחקת מידעי ממני. ”They blame me for my trouble“, שתני תועבות למו.
And he continues to call to ה׳ but is not answered, asking if he will finally be answered when he is dead.
עני אני וגוע מנער; I am tortured and dead from birth. That’s all life is, an inexorable journey to the grave, alone and unloved (הרחקת ממני אהב ורע; מידעי מחשך).
And there it ends. No last minute happy note, no sense of hope. The whole story (man punished for unknown reasons, G-d ignores his prayers, his friends abandon him) reads like the trailer for ספר איוב. And it doesn’t leave me wanting to see the movie.
So what is this doing in ספר תהילים? I think the connection to איוב is the key. Jewish thought, תנ״ך, doesn’t shy from the hard questions. Good things really do happen to bad people, and there isn’t an easy answer. Part of the task of the ספרי אמת—איוב, משלי and תהילים—is to address that problem, and each has its own characteristic answer. The answer from תהילים is overwhelmingly, גם זו לטובה, even what we see as bad, we will eventually realize was for the best. But the times of anguish are real, and we are allowed to express our feelings even when we don’t see the גם זו לטובה. This perek is that expression.
And the connection to ספר איוב may shed light on the authorship of this perek. The gemara says that Moshe wrote איוב:
Rav Kamenetsky hypothesizes that if Moshe wrote it, it must have been during שעיבוד מצרים. That’s when the problem of צדיק ורע לו was relevant:
And his editor actually attributes this to Azariah dei Rossi:
One understanding of הימן האזרחי was הימן the son of זרח, the son of יהודה. He may well have been alive and writing at the time of שעיבוד מצרים, when slavery was getting worse and the Jews felt abandoned by G-d. This perek (or an older version of it) may well have been part of their response to that first גלות, and foreshadows our response to the גליות that followed.
And it is a legitimate cry. ספר איוב tells us that is alright to complain to G-d, as long as it is G-d we complain to.
The third of the “singing Levites” was איתן, and we have one perek ascribed to him:
As above, איתן האזרחי may refer either to the Levi who was a contemporary of David, or to one of the בני זרח, and we could give the same answer. But here we need to take the Midrash that איתן האזרחי refers to אברהם אבינו much more seriously. The targum, that for הימן's perek translated the name as הימן יַצִיבָא, takes איתן האזרחי as Abraham:
As does the gemara:
And throughout our תפילות, especially on the יומים נוראים, we refer to Abraham as איתן; for instance:
What does this mean, to attribute a פרק תהילים to אברהם (or, in our model, attribute an original version or at least the sentiment to אברהם)? We’ll look at that at the end.
Rabbi Eisemann in his commentary to דברי הימים has a more פשט-based explanation for the absence of איתן from the Gemara’s list: he is really ידותון. איתן the Levi is mentioned in פרקים ו and טו along with אסף and הימן. After that the names change:
And in fact, there are no תהילים attributed to ידותון. There are תהילים that seem to use that word as a musical instruction or instrument:
So perhaps the ידותון mentioned by the gemara and in the end of דברי הימים was a stage name for our איתן.
This is a very long perek but the theme is actually very simple.
This is another משכיל, a lecture. There’s a message here. It starts with חסדי ה׳, which sounds very positive, but has echoes of צידוק הדין, the idea that ה׳ is just no matter what happens to us:
כרתי ברית לבחירי
It’s clear that this cannot been written in its current form by Abraham or by a בן זרח, since it’s all explicitly about David. We haven’t seen the ברית yet; that comes after נתן הנביא tells him he won’t build the בית המקדש:
ויודו שמים פלאך ה׳
The next stich praises ה׳, including one of the sources for our קדושה: אל נערץ בסוד קדשים רבה corresponds to נעריצך ונקדישך כסוד שיח שרפי קדש המקדישים שמו בקדש. It starts from angels, then continues to describe ה׳'s power over the land and seas, then moving on to His power over the civilized world:
including the great mountains of ארץ ישראל, תבור וחרמון. We can understand why we mention חרמון; it’s the tallest mountain in Israel, 9,232 feet. But הר תבור isn’t even in the top ten. Why mention it? One answer is suggested by the midrash:
הר תבור, while not very high, is distinctive; it “is shaped almost like a half-sphere, suddenly rising from rather flat surroundings” (Wikipedia). It was a center of Canaanite worship and so is a perfect example of ה׳'s domination of other “powers”.
צדק ומשפט מכון כסאך
The next stich is about Israel. They understand ה׳'s צדק ומשפט and really know the meaning of the shofar (ידעי תרועה):
הרימותי בחור מעם
The next stich comes back to David and the ברית. It’s all good, until the important point at פסוק לא on, אם יעזבו בניו תורתי; ובמשפטי לא ילכון…ופקדתי בשבט פשעם…לא אחלל בריתי. ה׳ will punish David’s descendants but not wipe them out. The dynasty will last forever.
ואתה זנחת ותמאס
Then things turn ugly. The psalmist turns to G-d and says, “You lied!”. In fact, Ibn Ezra brings a rabbi who refused to read this part:
But it isn’t really blasphemous. As we said above, complaining to G-d is still keeping a relationship with G-d, and this sort of question has a long history in Jewish thought:
Because the nature of a ברית is that there are conditions. There would come a point of no return if David’s descendants sinned enough:
זכר אני מה חלד
Then the psalmist gets personal. Life is short (חלד from חֲלוּדָה, rust) and pointless (שוא בראת כל בני אדם).
איה חסדיך הראשנים
The last stich returns to the beginning, with חסדי ה׳ and אמונתך. There is no blasphemy here, only a prayer that ה׳ avenge us, leading up to עקבות משיחך. This is the term the gemara uses for the period before the אחרית הימים. איתן is complaining that we have lost faith in the גאולה, that we are scorning the signs that משיך is coming.
ברוך ה׳ לעולם
The coda isn’t really just for this perek; it’s the end of the entire book 3 of תהילים, from פרק עג to here. This book is almost all the work of the Leviim, אסף, הימן, איתן and בני קרח. These chapters are much more pessimistic than most of ספר תהילים, and this pasuk serves to give us a little reassurance.
Given that this perek is all about ה׳'s relationship with David and מלכות בית דוד, what does it mean to attribute it to אברהם? I think that if we simply read this perek straight, it’s too easy to say that it doesn’t apply to us. Whether or not ה׳ keeps His promise to David doesn’t have anything to do with us. But there’s another ברית that does affect us:
It’s too easy for us to say, “G-d loves us, has a covenant with us. We’ll never be destroyed”. It doesn’t work that way. It didn’t work that way with ברית דוד and it doesn’t work that way with ברית אבות. And that is the message that איתן האזרחי has for us.