Last time we saw David coronated king in Chevron. He will next move his capital and the religious center of the country to Jerusalem. We’ll spend a long time talking about that.
But before that, I want to look at a פרק תהילים, written not by David but by Asaf the Levite, that tells us how we got here and where we are going:
Who was Asaf? He was one of the leaders of the משוררים, the Levitical singers in the משכן:
But he wasn’t literally על ימינו of הימן המשורר:
David would set up two centers of worship, one at the משכן in גבעון, and one with the ארון in ירושלם. אסף was the head of the latter. And he was more than a singer:
This particular perek is called a משכיל.
[Rav Schwab discusses the ברכה of אתה חונן] השכל means practical, applied wisdom. If one has wisdom in theory only but does not apply it to his practical life, behavior and character, this wisdom is not called השכל. …We find (יהושע א:ז) למען תשכיל, which means, in accordance with the context there, that by the practical application of the mitzvos HaTorah, you will be successful in your endeavors.
…There may be people who are דורש את אלוקים in that they daven frequently, learn Torah in depth, and may even be the source of chidushei Torah; yet they could still lack the element of משכיל…
Notably, a משכיל was not meant to be sung, but to be orated:
It’s a lesson that Asaf wants to teach.
אביעה חידות מני קדם
The first 8 psukim are the introduction: Asaf is telling us what he is going to say. It’s going to be a משל and a חידה, a parable and a riddle, so we have to pay attention. But it’s a lesson that has been handed down though history, and he is going to review Jewish history to make his point. פסוקים ז-ח are the point: past generations were a דור סורר ומרה but we need to do better: ישימו באלקים כסלם. כסיל generallly means “fool” but here it means “reliance”:
Hirsch explains it as “that unshakeable trust which men place in G-d and his promises even though there may be nothing in the physical world that might serve as visible or tangible vindication…[that may] seem utter ‘folly’ to the materialist mind which can only understand that which it can see and touch”.
The perek is largely about the selection of David and Jerusalem, and אפרים is a metonym for the Israel in the days of the Judges, when the center of the country was in שילה, in אפרים.
It’s also a hint to the kingdom of Saul, who was from בנימין, from the children of רחל, as opposed to David, from יהודה, from the children of לאה.
But there’s also a reference to one of the first rebellions of בני ישראל, from an obscure verse in דברי הימים:
The midrash says that בני אפרים tried to calculate the end of the Egyptian servitude, since ה׳ said (בראשית טו:יג) ויאמר לאברם ידע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אתם ארבע מאות שנה׃
They figured 400 years from the ברית בין הבתרים, but it was really 430 years from then:
(This is an object warning against trying to calculate when Mashiach will come: (סנהדרין צז,ב) תיפח עצמן של מחשבי קיצין)
However, this doesn’t fit the פשט, since the psalm goes on to say that they—בני אפרים—forgot the great deeds that ה׳ did in Egypt, which would have been after the premature exit.
נגד אבותם עשה פלא
פסוקים יב-טז describe the miracles that ה׳ did in the wilderness when the Jews left: He split the sea, led them with pillars of cloud and fire, and gave them water in the desert.
ויוסיפו עוד לחטא לו
Hirsch translates יוסיפו עוד לחטא as “they went on continually to sin against Him”. The specific sins that the perek refers to is תבערה and קברות התאוה. We’ll see why specifically those two. But we need to review the story:
As presented in תהילים, the people admit ה׳ can give them water but question whether He can give them לחם, in sense of “substantial food”—ולחם לבב אנוש יסעד. And they want flesh—שאר. This word is unusal; it generally means not “meat” but “flesh and blood”, a close relative:
This is the source of Rashi’s comment that התאוו תאוה is more than a lust for meat, it was a lust for ערוה:
I would read לכן שמע ה׳…ואש נשקה ביעקב as a reference to the previous incident of תבערה: ”Thus ה׳ had heard and sent a fire“. Asaf is saying that בני ישראל ignored the fact that they had just gone through the punishment for complaining, and forgot that וימטר עליהם מן לאכל. Therefore וימטר עליהם כעפר שאר, ה׳ sent them the flesh they demanded, then ויהרג במשמניהם.
And that continues in the cycle of Jewish history. The Jews forget ה׳, suffer, call out for mercy, ה׳ forgives them, but then they sin again. That is the message of פסוקים לב-לז. It’s the central theme of ספר שופטים:
And this is the message of תבערה and קברות התאוה. They just got out of one fire and they go and provoke ה׳ again. They never learn. That’s what Asaf wants his audience to hear: ולא יהיו כאבותם דור סורר ומרה.
The first part of the perek ends on a relatively happy note that we quote at מעריב: והוא רחום יכפר עון ולא ישחית. But it’s not as positive as it seems when we quote it out of context: ה׳ is promising that He won’t destroy everyone, since we are only human, רוח הולך ולא ישוב.
The second part of the perek goes through some of the same themes as the first, that בני ישראל keep sinning because they do not remember ה׳‘s power and wrath. But here it reviews the ten plagues. It’s very interesting; the list is out of order (and I’m not sure why). It also leaves out three of them: כינים, שחין and חשך. Hirsch (among others) explains that before most of the plagues, Moshe warned the Egyptians what was coming, so they would have a chance to repent. Before these three, there was no warning. They were meant simply as punishment. The lesson of this perek is to listen to ה׳’s warning, so those plagues are not relevant.
When we illustrate the plagues in children’s books, we always use the frogs because they are so cute; it’s a much less intimidating plague than wild animals or massive hailstorms. But are they really so benign? Our perek says צפרדע ותשחיתם, the frog destroyed them. Are צפרדעים really just frogs?
Google translate tells us that تمساح, tamsach, means crocodile.
The Netziv puts them together:
The Netziv reads the text carefully—what does פסוק כט add?
And then ה׳ led the Jews to safety in ארץ ישראל, and they messed up. ויסגו ויבגדו כאבותם. They betrayed G-d with idol worship, and even warped the service of the משכן:
And this corruption led to the destruction of משכן שילה, and all of Israel falling into the hands of the Philistines. This was in the generation immediately before Asaf, and probably within the memories of many of his audience. Not only was the משכן lost, but בני ישראל were devastated:
ואלמנתיו לא תבכינה
כהניו בחרב נפלו; ואלמנתיו לא תבכינה׃ is a reference to a specific incident in the fall of Shilo:
Pinchas’s wife (the daughter-in-law of Eli) did not weep over the death of her husband but over the loss of the ארון. Many look at this as a positive:
But Rabbi Shulman argued that this was a reflection of the misplaced priorities of the kohanim of the time; they cared more for the ritual of the משכן than for respect for people.
ויבחר את שבט יהודה
The end of the perek extols David and his tribe, and the sanctuary that he plans on building in Jerusalem. This is why I called this essay “Politically Incorrect”. There’s no way David himself could say this; he is trying to unite all of Israel under his leadership. Boasting about how wonderful he is and how the other tribes were rejected just wouldn’t help. But Asaf can say this.
But reading the subtext gives a very different understanding. The משל and חידה that Asaf speaks about in the beginning is the cycle of Jewish history, how ה׳ punishes Israel but eventually forgives, then Israel sins again and is punished again. Asaf is telling David, “remember the destruction of Shilo. Your מקדש may be built כארץ יסדה לעולם but it can still be destroyed.” This is the message that got ירמיהו, the prophet of the חורבן בית ראשון, almost killed:
This, however, is not a prophecy of destruction, it’s a משכיל, a lesson for the future.