The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 38

My friend Dave from my beloved Shabbat early morning minyan stopped me recently. “I won’t be in Israel for your father’s yahrtzeit kiddush. I’m sorry.”

I blinked.

My father’s first yahrtzeit isn’t until the end of July (four months away), and other than a passing mention (blog #7) in my writing, I haven’t spoken much of it to anyone. “That’s okay. Thanks for telling me.”

The following week, after reflecting upon it, I stopped him. “Thank you for what you said last week. I have no expectations that anyone in particular will attend the kiddush, but it’s moving that you cared enough to check the date. That means more to me than somebody being there by happenstance.”

* * *

Most kiddushes are in memory of loved ones (usually one’s parents), but not always. Four years ago, we held our daughter’s naming at my minyan and sponsored the kiddush afterwards. Until that morning, I hadn’t had a special date to mark. Back then, I wasn’t in the “club” yet.

For me, the cozy kiddush is an integral part of my early morning minyan experience. Most people are disinclined to wake up for services at 6:45 AM; we are a small group, and our kiddush is intimate. During my most recent three year crisis period, when I wasn’t attending services, I felt a constant sense of loss for the camaraderie of that minyan; every e-mail I received from our kiddush coordinator bruised me anew.

Unexpectedly, the kiddush coordinator now happens to be moving away quite soon; I was at shul last week for his final kiddush, wished him well… and volunteered to take his place. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) wrote: Every end is the beginning of something new.

Omni fine initium novum.

* * *

These Latin words bring me back to a favorite anecdote of Papa’s.

When we moved from Jerusalem to Columbus, Ohio in 1981, my father purchased his first car in North America: a used, white Ford Fairmont. As my father drove off the car lot with his wife, young son and several suitcases (essentially all that he owned in the world), he recalled a phrase, which Cicero (106–43 BCE) attributed to the Greek sage Bias of Priene (6th century BCE):

Omnia mea mecum porto.

The perfect aptness of this quote at that precise moment of his life would never cease to amuse him.

* * *

I had initially intended to be done with my study of Psalm 119 after completing stanza ר (resh), which corresponds the final letter of Papa’s name (Alexander), but that end only brought me to the realization of a new, necessary beginning, for my father was actually Alexander Ben Mosheh (son of Moisey).

Not to worry, I told myself. That’s only four additional stanzas. You can do it.

By chance, it happens that the first of these four additional stanzas is ×‘ (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which follows × (alef):

Wikipedia points out that ‘the grounds for the [Psalm] are established in the first two stanzas (alef and beth): the Torah is held up as a source of blessing and right conduct, and the psalmist pledges to dedicate himself to the law.’

– Me, blog #31

So here I am again – back at Psalm 119’s beginning –

















PSALM 119:ב (verses 9-16)

[CLICK for glossary]

ט בַּמֶּה יְזַכֶּה-נַּעַר, אֶת-אָרְחוֹ— לִשְׁמֹר, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 9 How can a youth make his way pure? By observing according to Thy dvar.
י בְּכָל-לִבִּי דְרַשְׁתִּיךָ; אַל-תַּשְׁגֵּנִי, מִמִּצְוֺתֶיךָ 10 With all my heart have I sought Thee; do not cause me to stray from Thy mitzvot.
יא בְּלִבִּי, צָפַנְתִּי אִמְרָתֶךָ— לְמַעַן, לֹא אֶחֱטָא-לָךְ 11 Thy imrah have I treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.
יב בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה– לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ 12 Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy hukim.
יג בִּשְׂפָתַי סִפַּרְתִּי– כֹּל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי-פִיךָ 13 With my lips have I told all the mishpatim of Thy mouth.
יד בְּדֶרֶךְ עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ שַׂשְׂתִּי– כְּעַל כָּל-הוֹן 14 I have rejoiced in the derekh of Thy eidot as much as in all riches.
טו בְּפִקּוּדֶיךָ אָשִׂיחָה; וְאַבִּיטָה, אֹרְחֹתֶיךָ 15 I will speak of Thy pikudim and look upon Thy ways.
טז בְּחֻקֹּתֶיךָ אֶשְׁתַּעֲשָׁע; לֹא אֶשְׁכַּח דְּבָרֶךָ 16 I will delight myself in Thy hukim; I will not forget Thy dvar.

The ArtScroll Book of Psalms (p. 537) highlights the connection between stanzas א and ב:

In the initial series of eight verses beginning with the letter א, the Psalmist discussed the highest priorities of Jewish life; i.e., the establishment of values, standards, and goals in accordance with the spirit of Torah and mitzvos… [In stanza ב,] the Psalmist queries… how can we assure the young and inexperienced student… that he will not be led astray…?

It bears noting that the medieval exegetes themselves read stanzas א and ב together thematically. The Ibn Ezra (1089–1167), for example, saw the first verse of ב as connected directly to the final verse of א:

במה – … לפי דעתי: שהוא קשור בפסוק העליון שאמר: את חקיך אשמור, אף על פי שלא אוכל לשמרם כראוי כדברך “How” – … according to my opinion: this [verse] is connected to the verse above, which says: “I will observe Thy hukim” (verse 8); even though I will not be able to observe them as appropriate, according to “Your dvar” (verse 9).

* * *

Our current stanza follows upon the uplifting tone of the first. Most of stanza ב is an expression of the Psalmist’s dedication to God’s commandments; the challenges he mentions are only A) potential, and B) from within, as we see in verses 10 & 11.

The Psalmist may stray from God’s commandments (10).
The Psalmist may sin against God (11).

As a modern, the wording of verse 10 actually bothers me at first blush: “אַל-תַּשְׁגֵּנִי” – “do not cause me to stray”. Nobody causes me to stray – I take full responsibility. Also: why would God deliberately have me sin? Surely He didn’t create all for mere sport? Unsurprisingly, the medieval commentators also perceive this ambiguity in the text and offer some clarity: God knows the Psalmist’s heart, and will help the Psalmist avoid straying.

(One may notice that each of the verses (10 & 11) that makes mention of the Psalmist’s potential challenges refers also to his heart, with which he seeks God and keeps His imrah safely hidden.)

אבן עזרא: בכל – אתה תדע כל לבי ואתה עזרני שלא אשגה Ibn Ezra (1089–1167): With all [my heart] – You shall know my whole heart, and You shall help me not to stray.
רד״ק: בכל לבי … עזרני להבין ולעשותם. ואמר תשגני, כיון שבידו לתת החכמה והבינה Radak (1160–1235): With all my heart … help me to understand and perform them. And it says ’cause me to stray’, for it is in His hand to give me intelligence and wisdom.
הרב אלטשולר: אל תשגני – … תן בלבי בינה להבין על בוריה Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769): Do not cause me to stray – … give wisdom to my heart to understand inside and out.

Thankfully, free will has its champions.

* * *

Another word in stanza ×‘ grabs me: ×Ö¹×¨Ö·×— (orakh) – way (of life), style, manner.

I begin my review of the stanza by scanning for repeating words and keywords from Radak’s glossary. The Psalmist makes a clever play in his use of the term orakh, which is found in verses 9 & 15, drawing a connection between the “way” of a youth (9) and the “ways” of God (15).

This wouldn’t be remarkable, except that one of the Radak’s keywords for Psalm 119 is a synonym for orakh, and this keyword was itself repeated three times in stanza × (alef), as well as once in our current stanza. The synonym is derekh – ×“ֶרֶך.

Not only could the Psalmist have opted for the word derekh in our current stanza (ב) instead of orakh, but if these terms are indeed synonymous, why didn’t he make use of the term orakh (which begins with ‘א’) in the previous stanza (א) instead of stanza ב?

In other words, why is the Psalmist making repeated use of a synonym for one of Psalm 119’s most oft-used keywords in these particular verses?

* * *

Back to my trusty BDB Dictionary.
What nuance am I missing?

The verb forms of these words may be instructive.
Let’s take a look at their connotations:

ד-ר-ך vb. tread, march
א-ר-ח vb. wander, journey, go


It would seem that while both of these biblical terms mean ‘way’, they represent different aspects of this concept. Derekh represents a steadiness of movement. Orakh represents aimlessness and unpredictability, hinting of adventure. Indeed, orakh is a perfect word to describe the ‘way’ of a youth (verse 9), unsure of his future and potential, exploring, learning, wandering.

Actually, this only sharpens my point further:

Orakh may be an appropriate description for the ‘way’ of a youth, but what is the implication of God’s orkhim (plural) in verse 15? It’s not as though the Psalmist couldn’t use the word derekh in stanza ב. In fact, he did (verse 14). So… why not stick with that more fitting ascription to God, especially as derekh is one of Psalm 119’s oft-repeated keywords? On this, the medievals were silent.

Could the Psalmist’s God be wandering and wondering?

* * *

In Jewish tradition, it is said that three partners bring you into the world: your mother, your father, and God. Also, among God’s many honorifics, we refer to Him in traditional prayers as ‘Our Father’.

As children,
learning the ways of the world,
we rely upon our parents’ constancy.
We assume that they are settled in dependable drakhim.
If we can imagine a God who wanders…
Surely our mothers and fathers are wandering too?

When my father purchased his used Ford Fairmont back in 1981, fresh off the plane from Israel with his wife, child, and earthly belongings in tow, he was embarking on an adventure. Little was certain, but my parents only intended to live in America for a year or two – no more. Instead, we ended up moving to Iowa and eventually to New Jersey. At some point, the discussions of returning to Israel faded.

Today, as an adult and as a parent myself, life remains to me – an unfolding and unknowable journey.

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