Last time, we looked at the first half of David’s psalm (תהילים קה) for the inauguration of the service at the ארון in Jerusalem. Now I want to look at the last half. I’m going to skip the middle part (שירו לה׳ שור חדש) until next time, for reasons that should be clear then.
The Seder Olam says that the first half was said in the morning and the second half (תהילים קו) in the evening, which brings up an important distiction between the two services:
Rashi on Tehillim treats בקר and לילה as metaphoric:
But the gemara takes it more literally:
And Rashi connects it back to the metaphor: night is a time of darkness, when we do not see the hand of ה׳, and we cannot honestly thank Him for His goodness if we do not see it. We have to rely on our faith in the future:
But the word אמונה has another implication: the darkness of night is a time of דין rather than חסד. G-d is hidden because we deserve it:
אמונתך בלילות refers both to our belief in ה׳'s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises to redeem us, and in His faithfulness in providing the consequences for our misdeeds.
Throughout מסכת ברכות, חז״ל derive the laws of prayer from ספר תהילים. This is because תהילים was the siddur of the מקדש. The principles that guided David in writing תהילים are the same principles that guide our תפילות today, so it is often enlightening to read תהילים in the context of those laws.
Our perek, תהילים קו, reflects אמונתך בלילות.
This psalm is both a הודו and a הללוי־ה, not as much of a joyous, “everyone join in” song as the last perek. But those with the wisdom to see it can answer הודו לה׳ כי טוב even on G-d’s judgment.
###מי ימלל גבורות ה׳
Of all the praises of ה׳ in תהילים, גבורה is one of the least common. I counted 11 times in the whole book. I don’t want to get too mystical, but we have a concept of “ספירות”: G-d may be unitary, but human beings need to classify and organize the world they observe, so we have these categories of Divine Providence:
And the names for the “lower seven” of these come from David’s prayer when he dedicates the plans for hte בית המקדש:
Now, I’m not sure that when David wrote תהילים, he had the elaborate system of ספירות and forces in mind. I don’t think it was as precise and organized as that. But the words he used had meaning, and I think they reflect the concepts that would later crystallize into more modern Kabbalah.
גבורה is the representation of G-d' judgement, of dividing and limiting the world:
גבורות ה׳ here is what we talked about above, ה's אמונה, His דין. That’s what this perek is all about.
As a side point, the language of מי ימלל גבורות ה׳ would later be turned into a praise of Israel, of human heroism:
Whether it’s appropriate to sing this song or not, I will leave to our מרא דאתרא.
זכרני ה׳ ברצון עמך
Before he gets into the history, recounting the גבורות ה׳, David makes this personal. He goes from the plural, שמרי משפט, to the singular, עשה צדקה, to the first person, זכרני ה׳. This is part of the expression of אמונתך בלילות, his faith and hope in the future, that he will be part of the national salvation, לשמח בשמחת גויך.
But first, things get ugly.
חטאנו עם אבותינו
David will go through all the thing בני ישראל did wrong in history (mostly in the wilderness). But he phrases it as a confession of his own generation’s sins. This is the basis of our וידוי (note the expression העוינו והרשענו):
Why do we say אבל אנחנו ואבותינו חטאנו? What do our ancestors have to do with our confession? The phrase ואבותינו is not part of the original וידוי:
It reflects the end of the תוכחה, when ה׳ promises to finally bring us back from גלות:
Our national וידוי is not complete unless we confess our ancestors sins. Rav Adin Steinsaltz has an intriguing answer:
במצרים לא השכילו
Before he gets to the well-known stories of Israel’s sins in the wilderness, David mentions that they went wrong even in Egypt. That’s not obvious from the Torah, but it is mentioned in יחזקאל and hinted at in other places:
וימרו על ים בים סוף
Then he lists six sins in the desert, but they are not in exact chronological order. It’s not clear what the order is meant to represent. Rav Hirsch classifies the first three as deficiencies of character, based on the Mishna:
I would understand the rebellion at ים סוף as a problem of כבוד, of thinking so much of themselves that they could not imagine that if they couldn’t see a way out of danger, then ה׳ could not:
It’s also our first introduction to Jewish sarcasm:
Then תאוה and the מידה כנגד מידה of OD’ing on quail:
And קנאה, in the rebellion of קרח:
Notably, David does not mention קרח by name. Rashi hypothesizes that he wanted to spare the feelings of איתן and his fellow Levites, who were descended from קרח:
The next three are the big ones. In each case, בני ישארל were in danger of being wiped out entirely, only to be saved by Moshe (or, in the last, by Pinchas).
יעשו עגל בחרב
וימאסו בארץ חמדה
ויצמדו לבעל פעור
המרו את רוחו
Next, David brings up a story not of Israel’s sin but of Moshe’s. But he blames it on Israel; כי המרו את רוחו.
What did Moshe do wrong at מי מריבה? There are a lot of answers given. Rambam says it was the very fact that he got angry:
And that is the meaning of the מר רוח here:
And once Moshe got angry, he spoke rashly. בטואי בשפתים in the Torah always indicates a vow that is not fulfilled.
Moshe has gotten angry before, and he loses his ability to think correctly:
I’m very hesitant to criticise משה רבינו, but at his level, he needed to control his temper.
But in our perek, the emphasis is on what בני ישראל did wrong; they provoked Moshe. However, it’s not so simple. וירע למשה בעבורם sounds like “it was bad for Moshe for their sake”, as though Moshe’s punishment was to בני ישראל's benefit. The אור החיים has an amazing explanation:
So the problem was a sort of impedance mismatch between משה and בני ישראל. He was the perfect leader for a different people. He could not bear their incessant backsliding; in Kabbalistic terms, Moshe is the embodiment of נצח, eternity, consistency. Israel’s only consistency is in their fickleness.
ויעבדו את עצביהם
And that fickleness continues when they reach ארץ ישראל. They refuse to learn from history, of the dangers of the idolatrous cultures around them:
The goal is not genocide but eliminating תועבתם:
And the cycle of Jewish history continues to David’s time:
הושיענו ה׳ אלקינו
We finally get back to the beginning of the perek, זכרני ה׳…לשמח בשמחת גויך. Despite all the sins and shortcomings, Israel will be saved; פעמים רבות יצילם. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t guaranteed (at least not at any given point in time):
ואמר כל העם אמן
The conclusion of this verse is narrative rather than poetic; it’s a sort of stage direction. The audience isn’t necessarily reciting a refrain or reading responsively, but that have to acknowledge what was just said:
And in the narrative version of דברי הימים, the people resoundingly answer אמן.