Deed, not Creed?

The rhyme that stuck

Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.

When I first heard this said to me some 2½ decades ago, I had no idea what my Hebrew high school teacher Rabbi Witty meant by it, but the rhyme stuck with me.

Hebrew high school?

I attended public school throughout my childhood, and, like many of my American Jewish contemporaries, I was also enrolled in an afterschool program that met three times weekly at the synagogue. This is known as Hebrew school.

Now, most of the children who attended Hebrew school did so for one simple reason: the shul’s (synagogue’s) policy was that only those who attended Hebrew school until the date of their bar/bat mitzvahs could mark these events within the community. That’s why many Hebrew school students dropped out in the 7th grade; that’s why less than half remained for the Hebrew high school program, which began the following year.

Even in Hebrew high school, there were plenty of students attending against their wills. Their parents pressured them to go – so they went. My Papa, on the other hand, thought it was a total waste of time. “What are you learning there?” he would ask me; and my answers were always lacking. Still, I remained one of the few students who loved going to Hebrew school, and I continued attending until I left for college.

To a large extent, Papa was correct. Compared to what I would eventually learn about Judaism as an adult (once I began proactively seeking my own Jewish way), most of my takeaways from Hebrew school, even after those many years, were not much more than fluff. Upon graduation, my Hebrew was poor, and I remained incapable of navigating any of the foundational Jewish texts, such as the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud.

Now, clearly, our Hebrew school teachers were well aware of this. They knew that the majority of their students came from fairly secular homes and were largely ignorant of Judaism. The sarcastic and dry Rabbi Witty (one of my favorite Hebrew high school teachers) understood his goal well: to plant the seeds of curiosity within his students. He knew that the substance of our Hebrew school studies left much to be desired; and he aimed, therefore, to plant germs of Jewish wisdom in our minds that would hopefully take root and sprout up at some point in the future.

“Remember, David,” said Rabbi Witty as he adjusted his belt buckle, “Judaism is a religion of deed – not creed.”

Huh? Deed? Not creed?


In fact, this saying actually encapsulates one of the major points of Christianity’s departure from Judaism, for Judaism, you see, has always been all about the Law.

[In Judaism] there are thus religious acts as well as religious knowledge. The religious acts… are disciplinary and educative. They train the soul to reverence. Religious knowledge tells us about the subject of that reverence, and inclines the mind to love. The sanctions of the law are thus for the purpose of spiritual education…

… St. Paul, too, believed that only with the coming of the Messiah will a change take place in human nature which will make the deterrent of the law superfluous, but since he believed that the Messiah has come already, that Jesus was the Messiah, the continuation of the practice of the law was regarded by him as a denial of Jesus’ messianity. It was either the law or Jesus.

Zvi Kolitz (1912-2002), ‘Survival For What?’, p. 7

In principle, you see, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, one is true to the Jewish faith if one practices Judaism. One must eat kosher food, pray thrice daily, observe the Sabbath, separate wool from linen, etc., etc., and these daily acts are the very building blocks of traditional Jewish life. In a certain sense, certainly from the perspective of Zvi Kolitz (above), traditional Judaism is designed for skeptics like me, for the law “trains the soul to reverence.”

Traditional Judaism does not assume that a human being inherently believes in God, let alone loves God. Rather, it assumes that one must be trained to do so. And – if one never comes to believe but continues adhering to the law, one remains, according to traditional Judaism, a member of the Jewish people in good standing.

Now, my own faith journey has been up, down, and all around. For some periods, I managed to convince myself that I believe in God, and at other times (like the last few years) I’ve had seemingly insurmountable difficulty believing in a supernatural force that is somehow involved in or even invested in the lives of human beings at all.

Still, in theory, if I were to somehow become convinced of a personal God’s existence again, that would be wonderful. I do remain open to that possibility, and therefore the traditional Jewish approach works well for me – I can continue practicing the law, regardless of what I happen to believe at any given moment.

The skeptic’s social problem

When it comes to my personal life, holding fast to the law, or at least holding it up as a standard to live by, works well. That’s not to say that I don’t break the law in multiple ways daily, but I am always keenly aware of it; I always think about it; I always ask myself if I couldn’t be more loyal to it. I always wish that I wanted to follow it more.

However, despite my earnest commitment to traditional Judaism, I have consistently found that expressing my religious skepticism regarding the possible existence of an involved, invested God in a communal setting in the Orthodox Jewish community inevitably results in awkwardness.

In private interpersonal interactions, it’s usually acceptable for me to express my beliefs honestly, in the sense that people don’t tend to take offense; but more often than not my fellow interlocutors will either attempt to convince me of their beliefs in God, or else they will suggest that I should continue along the traditional religious path and will eventually discover God for myself. In both such cases, I feel unheard and intellectually disrespected.

Online, I participate in several very respectful, intellectual, and active discussion forums for Jews who are skeptics; Jews who were once religious and left the fold; Jews who are religious both in outlook and in practice; and Jews who have come to believe in God over time. These forums are much more accepting and intellectually engaging than anything I have encountered in the real world. Through them, I have discovered some amazing Jewish bloggers who write about their struggles with faith, many of whom are anonymous for fear of being ostracized in their real lives.

For example, I came across an ultra-Orthodox blogger who calls himself ‘A Jew With Questions’ who continues to reside in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, but harbors theological doubts. He writes:

I am an American Charedi Jew living in Israel who is going through a crisis of faith. In short, I have a hard time believing in Orthodox Judaism due to the many questions that I have…

The purpose of this blog is to express these doubts and hopefully get some answers or at least conversation from commenters. One of the biggest problems that I have is that I have no one to talk to.  In many ways I am very lonely. My wife is a true believer in Hashem, and she constantly talks about emuna. My children go to Charedi schools and have been brainwashed by the Charedi educational system. My friends, chavrusas etc. are all true believers and would not listen or understand if I talked to them…

‘A Jew With Questions’, June 13, 2016

Now, I affiliate with the more religiously liberal and intellectually open end of the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, but despite the modern-mindedness of most such communities, I find serious, respectful discussions about my deep skepticism in God’s involvement not so easy to come by without uncomfortable looks and pregnant pauses.

The crux

A friend of mine has asked me on more than occasion why it matters to me what the members of my extended community believe. In part, it’s a matter of loneliness, just as it is for ‘A Jew With Questions’.

However, among other things, it’s also a matter of my deep disillusionment with traditional Judaism in lived experience. I’ve already written a blog post titled ‘Because God’, which I won’t rehash here, but it comes down to the following:

‘Because God’ is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom…

-Me, ‘Because God’, May 22, 2020

Upon reflection, I find the irony of humanity’s limitations in this context to be quite stinging.

Whereas I believe that Jewish law should be a means to “train the soul to reverence”, as Zvi Kolitz suggested (and therefore its practitioners should have no reason whatsoever to be threatened by a broad range of levels of belief within their communities), instead, most of its adherents seem to want/need to approach the system from exactly the opposite direction.

Namely: if those who follow the law cannot convince themselves that Hashem exists; that God is involved in their lives; that God wants them to observe the law… then it may turn out that they lack the motivation to follow Jewish law… and… well, frankly, I think they are afraid to face that possibility.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 48

I am no longer a “mourner” according to tradition, but am I no longer mourning? This is beyond me. Can one truly mourn forever, or does mourning inevitably decay into normalcy?

Less than one Hebrew month remains until my father’s first yahrzeit, thirteen months since his heart stopped for the second time at the hospital. Papa died on July 7, 2018 – on Shabbat* one year ago on the Gregorian calendar. However, the Hebrew anniversary of his death is the 24th of Tammuz (כ״ד בְּתַמּוּז), which will be on Shabbat, July 27, 2019. (From Sabbath to Sabbath.)

*I learned something:
According to the Tractate Shabbat 30a-b of the Babylonian Talmud, King David died on Shabbat afternoon. (see text at the bottom.)
According to the Zohar, we traditionally recite the Tzidkatcha prayer (צדקתך, “Your righeousness”) during mincha on Shabbat in memory of three individuals who died on Shabbat: Joseph, Moses and David.  

* * *


With eleven months of daily kaddish recitations and a twelfth month of additional mourning restrictions behind me, my grief’s sails have been hanging [un]expectedly limp these days.

I’ve mentioned to my friend Dov that I am worn out from grieving and have been feeling uninspired of late; he suggests that I submit a truncated blog post, writing just that. I check with the Times of Israel blog editors: would that be acceptable to them? Deputy Editor Anne Gordon responds:

There’s no specific minimum, and in your case, we’re not worried, especially given that you’re posting [in] the context of everything else. Use your judgement. We trust you

I almost did it -almost posted nothing more than the words above- but our family happened to be moving into a new apartment last week, and time evaporated in the balagan (בלגן) that ensued.

* * *


Weary from the move, I didn’t go to shul for several days last week so I brought my tefilin home one evening, intending to pray by myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t even put them on.

Sometimes I feel the need to reboot, and this is such a time. It’s an occasionally much needed reminder to myself that commitment to tradition is a choice.

… it is I who am granting our religion authority.

– Me, blog #6

Understand authority and you have crippled it.

Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 113

This week, I won’t be able to attend my weekday morning minyan, as my wife will be abroad, and I cannot leave our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter alone at home by herself. Perhaps I will get back into the groove of davening on my own. We’ll see.

* * *


My new landlord lost his father when he was but fourteen years old and spent that year of his childhood reciting kaddish at shul. I’m almost forty years old; his was a different experience.

Also, I’ve noted that the same eccentric gentleman who had once (until January – blog #24) regularly led the ma’ariv prayer on Saturday evenings at the close of Shabbat in honor of his father is now back at the rostrum. It turns out that his mother passed away some two months ago. Losing two parents in quick succession is another experience.

Reflecting upon these and other stories of loss that I’ve encountered, I recall a piece of wisdom from Sherri Mandell who lost her thirteen-year-old son Kobi to Arab terrorists in 2001 [link]:

Humility means that I recognize that one day even grieving will assume its proper proportion. In time, I will learn to give death its measure, and no more.

These words are directly from the chapter titled ‘Humility’ in Sherri’s book: Blessing of a Broken Heart.

* * *


Papa’s yahrzeit is imminent. With kaddish recitations no longer drawing me to shul, my thoughts turn towards the kiddush I will sponsor after my Shabbat morning minyan. By coincidence*, it turns out that Mama will be in Israel then; she will stay with us for Shabbat and come to shul for the kiddush.

*A pious friend tells me that there are no coincidences. I tell her that the title of ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ is much more true to my nature than ‘The Believer’s Kaddish’ ever could have been. Also, it sounds more intriguing.

What traditions are associated with the yahrzeit? There aren’t many. I already know, of course, of yahrzeit candles. Apparently, this tradition goes all the way back to Talmudic times, as the rabbis ruled that one may not use the “candle for the dead” for the havdalah ceremony, performed upon the departure of the Sabbath (B.T., Tractate Brachot 53a):

אין מברכין לא על הנר ולא על הבשמים של מתים The blessings [for havdalah] may not be recited over the candle or the spices of the dead.

I also know that it is considered appropriate to donate to charity and study Torah on the date of a yahrzeit, but I wonder if there’s something more in our tradition. From the Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955), I learn that there is also an ancient tradition of fasting on a parent’s yahrzeit, but further research suggests that this practice has mostly fallen into disuse. Regardless, we do not fast on Shabbat, which is a day of holy pleasure.

Then, by chance, my friend Aytan asks me if I’d like to read the haftarah portion on Papa’s yahrzeit.
What? Why?
I’m not entirely sure, but that’s the tradition.
Interesting! I’ll do some research on this.
Of course you will.

Chabad renders any “research” entirely unnecessary: a thorough answer can be found on their website.

* * *


I haven’t read haftarah since my bar mitzvah nearly 27 years ago. I am… terrified?

Perhaps that’s too strong a word, but the performative aspects of Judaism have never been my strong suit. Even publicizing my intention to attempt this scares me – it may raise expectations that I may not be able to meet. Still… I will give it my all.

After all, I’ve come this far, haven’t I?

* * *


Memories of my bar mitzvah come back to me. I remember having no idea what a haftarah was, but I knew that I was expected to read it. Perhaps it was considered “half” as important as the “Torah”? Nobody thought to clarify this for me back then.

I remember chanting one of the kaddishes to the wrong tune; but I pushed my way through it. The rabbi, of course, noticed and remarked upon it later (in the spirit of constructive criticism).

I remember writing my bar mitzvah speech based upon my father’s reading of the weekly Torah portion. He drew a connection to the theme of family and progeny, and I spoke about being the first Bogomolny in several generations to celebrate his bar mitzvah, even as my grandparents sat in the front row before me. They had emigrated from the FSU only several years before, and I don’t think their English was strong enough to understand me.

I remember receiving many earnest compliments from the regular shul-goers in regards to my speech. It had been wordsmithed by me, but it had been inspired by my Papa.

* * *


My father’s fingerprints are all over me.

* * *

Shabbat 30a-b

אמר לו בשבת תמות אמות באחד בשבת אמר לו כבר הגיע מלכות שלמה בנך ואין מלכות נוגעת בחברתה אפי’ כמלא נימא אמות בערב שבת אמר לו (תהילים פד) כי טוב יום בחצריך מאלף טוב לי יום אחד שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה מאלף עולות שעתיד שלמה בנך להקריב לפני על גבי המזבח Said He [God] to him [David]. ‘Thou wilt die on the Sabbath.’ ‘Let me die on the first day of the week!’ ‘The reign of thy son Solomon shall already have become due, and one reign may not overlap another even by a hairbreadth.’ ‘Then let me die on the eve of the Sabbath!’ Said He, ‘For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand’ (Psalms 84): better is to Me the one day that thou sittest and engagest in learning than the thousand burnt-offerings which thy son Solomon is destined to sacrifice before Me on the altar.’
כל יומא דשבתא הוה יתיב וגריס כולי יומא ההוא יומא דבעי למינח נפשיה קם מלאך המות קמיה ולא יכיל ליה דלא הוה פסק פומיה מגירסא אמר מאי אעביד ליה הוה ליה בוסתנא אחורי ביתיה אתא מלאך המות סליק ובחיש באילני נפק למיחזי הוה סליק בדרגא איפחית דרגא מתותיה אישתיק ונח נפשיה Every Sabbath day he would sit and study all day. On the day that his soul was to be at rest, the Angel of death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth. ‘What shall I do to him?’ said he. Now, there was a garden before his house; so the Angel of death went, ascended and soughed in the trees. He [David] went out to see: as he was ascending the ladder, it broke under him. Thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul had repose.


The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 41

I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z"l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.
I learned how to make matzah brei from Papa z”l. This is a very fond childhood memory of mine and remains one of my favorite Pesach foods even today.

A mourner’s notes:

  • Some unsolicited wisdom for the kaddish blogger:

There’s no way to really preserve a person when they’ve gone and that’s because whatever you write down it’s not the truth, it’s just a story. Stories are all we’re ever left with in our head or on paper: clever narratives put together from selected facts, legends, well edited tall tales with us in the starring roles.

– Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts, p. 413

  • My tefillin and tallit have taken up residence at shul. I know in advance that I’ll be back the next day so why not leave them? They only come home if I’ll be attending a different minyan the following day for logistical reasons. (I brought my tefillin home for Pesach because we don’t use them in Israel during the holiday.)
  • On at least two occasions, I have been convinced that I would get to shul several minutes too late for the earliest recitations of kaddish, but luckily there was no minyan until I walked through the door. This is male privilege.
  • Somebody new has joined our minyan: a male mourner who is comfortable at the helm. He has been leading services for the past several weeks, relieving the rest of us of awkward, suggestive stares. Also, I like his pacing and enunciation.
  • My friend Arielle gave birth to a son last week. As a mourner, I will attend the brit milah, but I will not remain for the festive meal.
  • My friend David’s daughter will be celebrating her bat mitzvah in June. I will have completed eleven months of kaddish recitation by then, but the event will be held during my twelve months of mourning so I will not be attending.
  • I have already missed two festive occasions on account of the religious restrictions associated with being a mourner. 1) A post-wedding celebration in Haifa of a friend from the USA. 2) An anniversary celebration of two friends from my minyan.
  • I miss Papa. Pesach is the holiday that most reminds me of him (blog #10). Beyond images of my father at our family seders, I most vividly recall the taste and texture his matzah brei, which I continue to prepare myself and enjoy annually at home (salted this year with my tears).
  • Today’s post marks the last of my commentaries on the stanzas of Psalm 119 in Papa’s memory.

* * *

How do I feel about completing my study of these Psalm 119 stanzas?

It feels liberating. As of today, I’m no longer bound to their religious themes, keywords, and language patterns. While I’ve never known what I would write about in any given ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ post before putting my fingers to the keyboard, I’ve felt fettered to Psalm 119 since choosing to embark upon it.

On the other hand, I’m still surprised every time I complete a post and realize that it reads coherently. How haven’t I run out of steam yet? Where will I get my next idea from? What more is there to write about? In this, Psalm 119 has been a ‘Godsend’ (see what I did there?). For eleven posts now, I haven’t had to worry about coming up with prompts or subject-matters – I’ve needed only to flow from the stanzas.

And… I’m proud of my commentary. So long, 119; it’s been real.

* * *

This leg of my kaddish odyssey ends with stanza ה (hey) of Psalm 119. Even as I type, I feel wistful.

Stanza ה is variegated. I’ve been sorting through these stanzas by keywords, but no other verses have I splashed with so much color-coding as these final eight. In part, it’s me. This time around, the Psalmist’s repeated use of particular word roots marks only the beginning of my exploration… I’ve also identified and linked together additional terms according to their themes.

The Psalmist’s overtones and undertones do resonate.

















PSALM 119:ה (verses 33-40)

[CLICK for glossary]

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the derekh of Thy hukim; and I will cherish it at every step.
לד הֲבִינֵנִי, וְאֶצְּרָה תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֶשְׁמְרֶנָּה בְכָל-לֵב 34 Give me understanding, that I cherish Thy Torah and observe it with [my] whole heart.
לה הַדְרִיכֵנִי, בִּנְתִיב מִצְוֺתֶיךָ: כִּי-בוֹ חָפָצְתִּי 35 Make me to tread [hadrikheini] in the path of Thy mitzvot for therein do I desire.
לו הַט-לִבִּי, אֶל-עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; וְאַל אֶל-בָּצַע 36 Incline my heart unto Thy eidot, and not to unjust gain.
לז הַעֲבֵר עֵינַי, מֵרְאוֹת שָׁוְא; בִּדְרָכֶךָ חַיֵּנִי 37 Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity, and vitalize me in Thy drakhim.
לח הָקֵם לְעַבְדְּךָ, אִמְרָתֶךָ— אֲשֶׁר, לְיִרְאָתֶךָ 38 Fulfill Thy imrah for Thy servant, regarding the fear of Thee.
לט הַעֲבֵר חֶרְפָּתִי, אֲשֶׁר יָגֹרְתִּי: כִּי מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ טוֹבִים 39 Turn away my disgrace, which I fear; for Thine mishpatim are good.
מ הִנֵּה, תָּאַבְתִּי לְפִקֻּדֶיךָ; בְּצִדְקָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 40 Behold, I have longed for Thy pikudim; vitalize me in Thy righteousness.

Every verse but one makes reference to God’s commandments: hukim, Torah, mitzvot, eidot, imrah, mishpatim, and pikudim. This is the first I’ve encountered a stanza that doesn’t repeat a single mitzvah-related keyword, as if the Psalmist is projecting an image of the Divine Law onto the text through a rotating kaleidoscope.

* * *

Verse 37 is the verse that unlocks this stanza for me.

The keyword is drakhim (plural), which Radak’s (1160–1235) glossary defines as: ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Drakhim does not refer to halakha (Jewish Law) per se; and the Malbim (1809-1879) explicates:

בם חייני. על ידי שאראה שדרכי ה’ חסד ורחמים וחנינה ואלמד ללכת בדרכיו לחיות בהם Vitalize me in them’. By virtue of my seeing that God’s drakhim (ways) are kindness, mercy, and amnesty; and my learning to walk in His drakhim [in order] to live by them.

‘Drakhim’, says the Malbim, refers not to Divine commandedness. It is a matter of morality, and as it turns out, derekh (root: ד-ר-כ), is the only keyword of Psalm 119 repeated in stanza ה. We find this root thrice – in verses 33,  35, 37 – in every other verse of the stanza. One might reasonably expect to find it again in 39, but no dice.

* * *

Let’s take another look at verse 37; there’s a lot of action. This verse alone includes three of our repeating terms. The first, as mentioned, is ד-ר-כ, the second is vitalize me (חַיֵּנִי), and the third is Turn away (הַעֲבֵר). Notably, these latter terms are repeated only in the second half of the stanza, as is another concept: fear.

Here I take creative license. The roots of the words for fear in stanzas 38 and 39 are not the same: י-ר-א in verse 38 and י-ג-ר in verse 39. Still, let’s step back for a moment: Way-tread, way-tread, way-tread, turn away!, vitalize!, fear!, turn away!, fear!, vitalize!

* * *

There are two more theme-pieces to our puzzle.

The first is the unambiguous repetition of the word לֵב (lev), meaning heart, in verses 34 and 36 in the first half of the stanza.

The second theme-piece is conceptual: desire-value. I didn’t notice this right away because there are four separate roots that play into it: 1) Verses 34 & 35. Root: א-צ-ר; Store, Treasure. 2) Verse 35. Root: ח-פ-צ; Pleasure, Desire. 3) Verse 36. Root: ב-צ-ע; Unjust gain; Profit. 4) Verse 40. Root ת-א-ב; Long for, Desire.

Clicking these pieces into place produces the following picture:

  • The 1st half (33-36): Way-tread, desire-value, desire-value, heart, way-tread, desire-value, heart, desire-value.
  • The 2nd half (37-40): turn away!, vitalize!, way-tread, fear!, turn away!, fear!, desire-value, vitalize!

One could write the stanza’s meta-story along these themes, and I find it striking that none of the exegetes pursue a similar line of analysis. The medievals’ collective ear was tone-deaf to the Psalmist’s poetry, else they simply considered approaches such as mine frivolous.

* * *

Let’s zoom back in on the root: ד-ר-כ, which is repeated thrice in our stanza – in verses 33,  35, 37. The sequence breaks in verse 39 – why? Derekh refers to God’s ‘way’, which is one of kindness and mercy, per the Malbim. We’ve followed this ד-ר-כ trail straight to verse 39, but an abrupt shift in theme and tone awaits us: turn away!, fear! 

What is the Psalmist hoping to turn away from? What is it that he fears?


In their interpretations of stanza ה, the exegetes refer us once again to the story of King David (blog #36). Recall that it was David, according to most Jewish religious authorities, who authored the holy Psalms (blog #33); and the great Radak lends his support to this narrative, reading verses 38 and 39 as a unit:


הקם. מה שהבטחתני להקים המלכות לבני אחרי ‘Fulfill’. That which You promised me – to establish the kingship for my sons after me >>>
אשר ליראתך. אשר יהיו דבקים ליראתך ‘Regarding the fear of Thee’. >>> who will be attached to [their] fear of You.


העבר חרפתי. לפי שאמר בפסוק שלפני זה להקים ההבטחה לבניו אחריו, בקש שלא יהיה לשטן לו אותו העון שהוא חרפתו לבניו ואע”פ שאמר לו גם ה’ העביר חטאתך מכל מקום בקש מהאל ית’ שיעבירו גם מבניו ‘Turn away my disgrace’. As it is said in the verse that comes before, this [means] to fulfill the promise to his sons after him. He requested that the Satan wouldn’t [attribute] the same transgression that was his [King David’s] disgrace to his sons; and even though God told him He would “turn away your sin,” he still requested something more from God – that He would transfer it [David’s transgression] away from his sons.

King David’s great sin, alluded to by Radak, was committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband; and it is this wicked misdeed that the Psalmist juxtaposes with God’s derekh of kindness and mercy.

This is what the Psalmist is likely referring to in verse 36 when he writes of ‘unjust gain’ at the end of the 1st half of our stanza, after he writes so earnestly of cherishing God’s derekh and Torah and desiring the path of His mitzvot.

The terrible brush with unjust gain brings the early theme of desire-value to its abrupt end, leading to turn away!, fear!, and the Psalmist’s desperate entreaty to God: vitalize me!

* * *

Ultimately, rising above his shameful disgrace, the Psalmist rediscovers longing in verse 40, and this time for God’s pikudim, which, according to Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are: ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’.

Of course, we know that Radak’s glossary is hardly peshat (blog #36), but then neither is reading the story of King David into the Psalms. In fact, I mention it here purely for poetic reasons. As noted earlier, one of Psalm 119’s early themes is ‘heart’ (לב), which occurs only in verses 34 and 36 and then disappears in the face of turn away! and fear! only to reemerge with the greatest of subtlety at the conclusion of the stanza.

In this reading, we find that the Psalmist’s desire, now directed at the Divine commandments most natural to his heart, finds his confidence restored, as he appeals through deep faith to God’s great righteousness.

* * *

One might say (as Radak does) that pikudim represent the most basic of Jewish values, those Divine behaviors that come most naturally to humankind. Simple, isn’t it? The trick, as we know all too well from experience, is that not all human hearts are drumming in harmony.

Perhaps… if we observe the lives of those most naturally kind and merciful (as the Malbim put it – remember?) who lead their lives unbound by supposedly Divine imperatives, we might begin to better comprehend the concept of God’s pikudim.

Each day I recite; I write; I remember and appreciate my exceedingly humble, kind and merciful father. (Papa would have been horribly embarrassed at my extolling his virtues for all the world to read.)