The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 46

I continue attending minyan every day, despite having completed the traditional 11 months of orphan’s kaddish. I continue standing alone at the back, feeling forever a faithless foreigner.

Why do I –
go?
care?
bother?
… always the same tired questions.

Putting aside the old, stubborn basics, it is the kaddish that most draws me to shul these days. I may no longer be a kaddish’er, but the recitations of others sustain me.

For some days after my final kaddish for Papa, I continued reacting instinctively to the voices of the other mourners; catching myself after each false start of “yitga-“ and stopping abashedly, although hardly anyone noticed…

I’ve since adapted; mine is now to respond:
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach…

* * *

Throughout the course of these many months since Papa’s death, even at the very beginning, “I reasoned that [my recitation of kaddish] would [mark] my return to shul…” (blog #25). While I had grown very distant from Jewish community at that point, “part of my personal struggle for [those] past several years [had been] my concern that my… daughter… had no connection to synagogue or communal Jewish life…” (blog #1).

And, of course, there’s the matter of gender. As an adult male, I count for an Orthodox minyan, which means that my very presence in the room could make the difference for other petitioners, as to whether or not they may recite the orphan’s kaddish. The math is heartless: Are there ten Jewish men present? Very well, Mourner, you may recite. What, no minyan? Alas, then- no kaddish.

This is the same calculus that leads many female mourners to forgo further shul attendance after their final kaddishes. In my search for other kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I found Dr. Naomi L. Baum’s recounting of her ‘Last Kaddish’ for her mother, which brings home the point:

… after much soul searching, I concluded that I would not continue praying on a daily basis with a minyan.

Why not? First, I, as a woman, am not counted as a member in the prayer quorum, the minyan. If there are nine men, and me, there is no minyan. Only 10 men over the age of 13 are eligible to be counted for a minyan. After spending almost a year waiting on a daily basis for a quorum to assemble, the importance of the minyan is very clear to me. However, I am of no value there…

Unlike Dr. Baum, I am “of value” to the minyan regardless of my unease. Last September, two months after Papa died, I acknowledged my need of a daily minyan of religiously committed Jewish men, despite my misgivings about the rote practice of Jewish prayer and ritual (blog #5):

I am taking advantage of those religious Jews who perform the rituals with absolute consistency. They are committed; wherefore this mourner has a minyan.

Mine is hardly a model life of religious constancy, but I am moved to help make a minyan for the mourners of my community.  Also, I find myself thinking: were I to quit once more after these eleven months of daily shul-going, I might never find the strength to return again.

* * *

For eleven months, the relentless daily pulsations of kaddish across the taut fabric of time reverberate. It’s the rhythm’s reliable regularity whose abrupt end leaves one straining for melody after three hundred and thirty consecutive days.

A break in the flow, inconceivable, but I missed
one
day of kaddish.

Sort
of… *sigh*

It’s like this.
Several months ago, I was searching Expedia.com for tickets to return to New Jersey for Papa’s unveiling (blog #44) when it hit me: I was probably going to miss at least one day of kaddish in flight, perhaps even two.

I had a choice.
Direct flights between the Ben Gurion and Newark Liberty airports in June would likely have had Jewish prayer quorums on board (like my flight after the funeral and shiva last summer – blog #2), but not so the substantially cheaper flights with layovers in Europe.

Conflicted,
I consulted a wise mentor, who advised: Why don’t you ask somebody else to recite the kaddish for your father while you’re in transit? Startled at the simplicity of his suggestion, I wondered: Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Oh, that’s right…
I’d been swayed by Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev Ben Mattathias’ (early 16th c.) sentiments, which were translated by Leon Wieseltier in his iconic Kaddish tome regarding “the custom of hiring the precentor or somebody else to say the kaddish in place of the son” (p. 388):

I do not approve of this at all, except when the deceased has no son or when the deceased has a son who does not reside in the community permanently… Why didn’t Rabbi Akiva hire somebody to say kaddish for that [deceased tax collector of Jewish legend, blog #11] and thereby release him from his suffering? Indeed, Rabbi Akiva preferred to leave him in his suffering until his young son grew up.

Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev was hardly alone among the rabbis in his disdain for this practice. It is the orphan’s kaddish, is it not? Still, even and perhaps particularly into the modern day, kaddish recitation services have proliferated for the unable and the unwilling. Examples (in no particular order) include: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] and many others.

I’ve been biased against this from the beginning. How could anybody else (other than my brother) say kaddish for Papa?

* * *

Author Nathan Englander published a work of fiction just over two months ago: ‘Kaddish.com’, and I was excited to acquire it (blog #39) during my year of mourning. The work is a light, entertaining read, but intellectually underwhelming. I had expected much more religious nuance vis-à-vis kaddish itself from Englander; and the story’s ultra-religious characters fell flat to me in their fervent obsessiveness.

Still, the book’s ending is poignant and touchingly redemptive.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the main character, who had years ago hired an anonymous stranger to recite kaddish for his father, ultimately commits himself to reciting kaddish for one hundred individuals every year for the rest of his life; but he intends to do this in the most intimately meaningful way possible (p. 199):

By the time the sun rises, Shuli… decides he’s sufficiently well versed in the first thirteen – not just in his command of the names but with the essence of the people behind them… To hold a full hundred in his head, he’d need a while longer, that was certain.

This is an example to follow. If I am to ask somebody else to recite kaddish for Papa, it must be a friend of mine. It must be somebody who has been devotedly following my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog series; somebody who has come to know Papa and me better through my writing.

I ask a friend from my daily minyan to recite kaddish for my father while I’m airborne; he can’t do it – he’s flying to the USA that same night. I ask another friend from minyan, but both of his parents are yet living – it’s considered a bad omen to recite kaddish before their times have come. A third friend is already reciting kaddish that month for a cousin of his; and, selfishly, I want somebody to recite kaddish exclusively for my Papa.

Then I think of a good friend from another minyan nearby who has been kindly reading all of my blog posts. Hersh has already lost both of his own parents, and he takes his commitment to kaddish (and to Judaism; and to God; and to the dignity of others) very earnestly. Also, Hersh davens with a minyan every day – my request won’t be much of a burden for him.

Happily for me, my friend agrees immediately. A load is lifted. I am afloat with gratitude.

Ultimately, I am able to recite kaddish for Papa at the airport synagogue before my flight to America; but no opportunities present themselves upon my return. I pray alone on the layover flight to Switzerland; but I know that Hersh is in Jerusalem, faithfully reciting kaddish that day on my behalf for Papa.

Thank you.

* * *

Some reflections (after completing 11 months of kaddish):

  • Two weeks have transpired since my final kaddish (May 28); and nearly as long since my previous blog post. Time feels slower.
  • I have come one or two minutes late to shul several times since May 28, just after or during the recitation of the first morning kaddish. I tell myself that this is a coincidence, but I am not so sure; minyan attendance feels less urgent to me now.
  • On the morning of Shavuot, which was two days ago, I arrived on time for services, but no kaddish’ers were present for the earliest recitations of the morning. I felt discombobulated.
  • This morning, I was one of the first ten men present at shul; the mourners were able to recite kaddish without delay. I am “of value”.
  • I returned home from New Jersey with a book from Mama’s shelf, which I’ve now read and intend to reread: The Blessing of a Broken Heart by Sherri Mandell. It has left me full of impressions and emotions. Every chapter of her book reads to me like a kaddish blog post. I feel compelled to write more on this.

 

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.

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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?

– HIS OWN DISGRACE –

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:

VERSE 38

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.

VERSE 39

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.)

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 40

In less than a month’s time I return to New Jersey for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, 10 months after his death. I’ve been preparing myself. Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but I feel compelled to stand before his grave to tell my Papa how much I love him; and embrace the part of me that will remain with him forever in America.

Some days before my father’s death last summer, I was in Vilnius with my mama’s cousin, his wife, and their son. They are all the family we have left in Lithuania and diligently maintain our forebears’ graves, namely those of my mother’s grandparents. Upon guiding me to the gravesite through the misty rain, my relatives immediately took to tidying up the tombstones. To be honest, that isn’t something that had ever occurred to me to do. The moment touched and changed me.

I’d never known my great-grandparents but am named after my mother’s father’s father; and I have heard much spoken of his kindness. My Dedushka had always wanted to name a child after his father Давид, but he was blessed with three daughters. In 1979, therefore, upon arriving more quickly than humanly possible from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem and hearing my given name for the very first time, Dedushka responded to Papa with classic nonchalant gruffness, “That’s a good name.”

Last summer was the first I’d ever visited Lithuania, and it may have been the last, but the thread of my own life’s journey glistened there in the morning mist before me, as I stood looking at that particular tombstone engraved with the name Давид, at a portion of myself that will forever and ever remain in Vilnius.

Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but then neither did mortality and meaning so consume my everything.

* * *

Need anything be inherently meaningful? My expectations of the kaddish year were arguably high from the start, I suppose. Why not just go through the motions, regardless of my feelings? Or, better yet, why bother? And, ultimately, nihilistic though it may be to ponder, what does it matter that I’ve had some breakthroughs in my prayers and writings? The most basic questions have no answers.

Many, many Jews opt in to kaddish when their loved ones die. Some find it worthwhile, some do not, but meaning is not intrinsic to ritual.

In my ongoing search for kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I came across an essay by activist and author Jay Michaelson. It’s rather unlike most other kaddish essays in that Michaelson writes that he did not find kaddish helpful or healing [link]:

 I’ve resisted writing about my year of saying Kaddish for my mother… Often, such writing carries a sense of lyrical, self-indulgent profundity. But my process hasn’t been profound. It’s been mundane, and pontification seems ridiculous.

After 11 months, having taken on a practice of saying Kaddish regularly, I’m now relieved to let it go… 

I didn’t find the ritual particularly helpful. I think of my mom all the time; I didn’t need to be reminded of her by anapests of Aramaic. I know she would’ve wanted me to do it, so I did it and I’m glad I did. But it wasn’t healing…

I recall now that in the book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier also shares his struggles with the regular, rote kaddish recitations: “In shul and out of shul, dawn and dusk, day after day after day. Spirituality is declining into schedules” (p. 227); and “this morning there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word” (p. 255). This discontent must surely have had something to do with his committed, year-long poring through the ancient kaddish literature.

Perhaps because I had long been in religious crisis, perhaps because I was already familiar with the basics of Jewish ritual life, perhaps… perhaps because I wanted more, I knew that I would never make it through eleven months of daily prayers and kaddish recitations without personalizing them. Initially, I only intended to write once a month, but fissures were propagating across my heart, pulsing with pressure and dripping with expression. My first blog post, plastered over the cracks, was saturated and leaking so I covered it with another… and then a third and a fourth…  and now a fortieth.

Lyrical and self-indulgently profound? Undoubtedly so, Mr. Michaelson, yet my sealant is holding.

* * *

Given my personal experience, I do quite agree with Michaelson’s sentiment. Traditional Jewish prayer is foremost a religious obligation, and my process has felt rather like a slog of late. I’ve been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers, and even plodding along through my study of Psalm 119, which continually fails to inspire me. Sometimes I can’t tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I’m spent regardless.

Still, the power of the orphan’s kaddish itself has been moving me recently. It feels right that my Papa’s death should be declared before the nation. It feels right to stand up and proclaim those ancient words that now flow so effortlessly from my lips. It even feels right to make an intellectual exercise of mundane Psalm verses representing his name: Alexander son of Mosheh. When the time comes, I shall stand tall to recite these stanzas at his gravesite.

My grief finds expression in my element.

* * *

This week’s stanza is ש (shin), which I’ve had my eye on for some time now because of verse 165, which is part of the Ein Keloheinu (אֵין כֵּאלהֵינוּ) prayer that is said every day in Israel at the end of the morning services. Also, something that I only just discovered is that verses 166, 162, and 165 are recited in that order by the mohel at a brit milah.

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PSALM 119:ש (verses 161-168)

[CLICK for glossary]

קסא שָׂרִים, רְדָפוּנִי חִנָּם; ומדבריך (וּמִדְּבָרְךָ), פָּחַד לִבִּי 161 Princes have pursued me without a cause; but my heart is in awe of Thy dvar.
קסב שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי, עַל-אִמְרָתֶךָ— כְּמוֹצֵא, שָׁלָל רָב 162 I rejoice at Thy imrah, as one that findeth great spoil.
קסג שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי, וַאֲתַעֵבָה; תּוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 163 I hate and abhor falsehood; Thy Torah do I love.
קסד שֶׁבַע בַּיּוֹם, הִלַּלְתִּיךָ– עַל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 164 Seven times a day do I praise Thee for Thy righteous mitshpatim.
קסה שָׁלוֹם רָב, לְאֹהֲבֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֵין-לָמוֹ מִכְשׁוֹל 165 There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.
קסו שִׂבַּרְתִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ יְהוָה; וּמִצְוֺתֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי 166 I have hoped for Thy salvation, O Lord, and have done Thy mitzvot.
קסז שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עֵדֹתֶיךָ; וָאֹהֲבֵם מְאֹד 167 My being hath observed Thy eidot; and I love them exceedingly.
קסח שָׁמַרְתִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ, וְעֵדֹתֶיךָ: כִּי כָל-דְּרָכַי נֶגְדֶּךָ 168 I have observed Thy pikudim and Thy eidot; for all my drakhim are before Thee.

The final section of the Ein Keloheinu prayer, which includes Psalm 119:165, is taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 64a (the final folio):

אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם שנאמר (ישעיהו נד) וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך (תהילים קיט) שלום רב לאוהבי תורתך ואין למו מכשול (תהילים קכב) יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך (תהילים קכב) למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך (תהילים קכב) למען בית ה’ אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך (תהילים כט) ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children’ (Isa. 54:13). Read not banayikh [thy children] but bonayikh [thy builders]. ‘There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them’ (Ps. 119:165). ‘Peace be within thy walls and serenity within thy palaces’ (Ps. 122:7). ‘For my brethren and companions’ sake I will now say, Peace be within thee’ (Ibid. 8). ‘For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good’ (Ibid. 9). ‘The Lord will give strength unto His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace‘ (Ps. 29:11).

For those who feel themselves at home at shul, these words are very familiar.

Regardless, their theme, at a glance, isn’t subtle.

* * *

In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, Radak (1160–1235) riffs on verse 119:165:

שלום רב. כי לעולם אוהבי התורה לא יכשלו כי דרכם דרך ישרה ולעולם יהיו בשלום כי הם מסתפקים במעט שישיגו מן העולם הזה ולא ידאגו לכל מקרה והנה להם שלום רב Great peace. For the lovers of the Torah will never falter, for their derekh is the straight derekh; and they will forever be at peace, as they are satisfied with the little that they’ve obtained from this world; and they will not worry in any case, and this, for them, is ‘Great Peace’.

Love of Torah leads one to live a moral and satisfied existence, says Radak. Inner peace is the ‘great’ peace. It’s that simple. It is the kind of peace that we turn to religion for. It’s the kind of peace that we can reasonably attain.

* * *

Peace is one of the most fundamental of human aspirations, and its continued absence in this world poses a challenge to faith of profound proportions. Our verse 165 was one of several biblical gleanings fashioned together in the Talmudic passage above (and then inserted into the Jewish liturgy), as if to say – look, the Bible is relating to your lived concerns and experiences – and the Almighty has responded!

Verse 165 inspired and affirmed the rabbis’ reflections on peace, as it is the only one of Psalm 119’s 176 verses to mention shalom at all. Hence it was assigned a prominent spot in Jewish prayer and study.

The orphan’s kaddish, on the other hand, comprised of six sections, dedicates the final two of these to the theme of peace. The penultimate section is in Aramaic:

יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Immediately, we see that this “great peace” for “all of Israel” is something entirely different than the personal “great peace” described by Radak. Also, this line of kaddish offers us no formula – how does one bring such peace about? The [predictable!] answer lies in the final line of kaddish, the famous ‘Oseh Shalom’ in Hebrew:

עושה שָׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

With ‘Oseh Shalom’, the kaddish concretizes its strategy for achieving peace: God.

Just pray to God.

May He make peace for us. Amen.

What? No peace yet? Well, let’s keep on praying then.

* * *

Unexpectedly, after weeks of plodding analysis through the stanzas of Psalm 119 in honor of Papa, I have found a precious nugget buried in the crevices of its type. A relatable alternative to the lofty language of faith. Amen.

Personally, as a mourner, I am hurting and hungering for an inner peace this year, much more so than an elusive, universal peace for the Jewish people. If I were to write a prayer of my own (a kaddish perhaps?), I would be inclined to end it with the words of Psalm 119:165.

There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.

My love of Torah has been bringing me some measure of peace these days. Amen.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 39

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Photograph by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, posted April 5, 2013. Original caption: ‘Squirrels are actually very kind to each other and will adopt abandoned baby squirrels if they notice a relative has not come back for them.’

My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-published Kaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.

It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.

Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):

There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…

Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…

Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!

I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:

[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 420 (blog #11)

I wear my father’s cap; his yarmulke; his watch; his house shoes, but I wish that he were wearing them instead.

– Me, blog #15

I recently had an insight. Another way of thinking about death if you will. We are all cells in the organism of the Jewish nation… every single cell will come to be replaced.

– Me, blog #30

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

– Me, blog #33

When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.

* * *

I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.

On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?

Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.

Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)

Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.

I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.

The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.

* * *

I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.

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PSALM 119:מ (verses 97-104)

[CLICK for glossary]

צז מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי 97 O how I love Thy Torah! It is my conversation all the day.
צח מֵאֹיְבַי, תְּחַכְּמֵנִי מִצְוֺתֶךָ: כִּי לְעוֹלָם הִיא-לִי 98 From [my encounter with] my enemies, Thy mitzvot make me smarter: for it is ever with me.
צט מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי: כִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, שִׂיחָה לִי 99 From all my teachers I grew wise; for Thy eidot are my conversation.
ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.
קא מִכָּל-אֹרַח רָע, כָּלִאתִי רַגְלָי– לְמַעַן, אֶשְׁמֹר דְּבָרֶךָ 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, in order that I might observe Thy dvar.
קב מִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לֹא-סָרְתִּי: כִּי-אַתָּה, הוֹרֵתָנִי 102 I have not turned aside from Thine mishpatim for Thou hast instructed me.
קג מַה-נִּמְלְצוּ לְחִכִּי, אִמְרָתֶךָ— מִדְּבַשׁ לְפִי 103 How sweet is Thy imrah unto my palate! more than honey to my mouth!
קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keyword pikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).

Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].

Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrahdvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.

The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah; the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversation no longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.

The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”

* * *

A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:

Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:

Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
Gain understanding

ק מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי 100 From elders I gain understanding, because I have kept Thy pikudim.

Verse 104, capping the 2nd set of four verses, which focuses upon drawing a crucial distinction between the sweetness of God’s word and other errant, evil ways, follows a different logic:

[Keep] pikudim >>
Gain understanding >>
Hate false ways [of living]

קד מִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ אֶתְבּוֹנָן; עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי כָּל-אֹרַח שָׁקֶר 104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

What might the Psalmist be suggesting?

My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.

  1. The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
  2. Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.

* * *

Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.

Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.

I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.

The political landscape is bleak to me.

 

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 ב (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which follows א (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 –

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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 ב grabs me: אֹרַח (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 א (alef), as well as once in our current stanza. The synonym is derekh – דֶרֶך.

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

Interesting.

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.
But…
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.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 34

Spring has arrived, as my allergies attest, but the last few weeks of Winter in Israel were cold and rainy. The season did not go quietly, but idiosyncratic as I am, I wore my waterproof Source sandals despite the weather – even when schlepping to shul through rain torrents in trench coat and rain pants.

At one point, the gabbai (beadle) came up to me and said, “You look like a Franciscan monk in black with those sandals and trench coat.”

Amused, I quipped, “Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable at services.”

* * *

My blogging makes shul-going more tolerable. Herein, I don’t pretend. My doubts, my discomforts, my misgivings – these are all part of my process and identity no less than my daily kaddish recitations. I am grieving traditionally and also honestly.

* * *

As the seasons change, more mourners complete their years of kaddish. The gentleman who had been most regularly leading shacharit (morning) services at Kehillat Yedidya completed his journey more than a week ago. I’ve led shacharit several times since, but not on Mondays or Thursdays – those are Torah reading days, when the service is longer and beyond the cusp of my spiritual comfort zone.

There are two other male regulars reciting kaddish. One of them shows up every day; the other shows up fairly often. I’ve noticed that the first is never interested in leading services, and the other noted to me last week that it’s not a requisite – he doesn’t want to lead either. Despite having learned that it’s not obligatory, I’ve unexpectedly come to prefer that a mourner lead the prayers so that he might recite the half kaddishes and full kaddish, which are not exclusive to mourners. After all, these do hold special significance for those who live from kaddish to kaddish.

Nonetheless, I strongly empathize with my two fellow petitioners – I prefer to stand at the back by myself and daven at my own pace. It’s actually liberating to be one of several mourners who aren’t leading services – I’m not alone in avoiding the limelight.

For now, I’ll maintain my new balance: I will lead shacharit on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Torah is not read, assuming that no other mourner takes the initiative.

* * *

As for my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ series, I’ve recently settled into posting new entries once a week. Not a day goes by, however, that my writing doesn’t occupy me.

As I study the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of my father’s name, I am simultaneously vitalized by the creative process of engagement with the text and challenged by the Psalmist’s traditional faith language.

This week, I turn to stanza ס (samech), the fourth letter of Papa’s name. The Artscroll Book of Psalms (published just last year!) provides the following tasty tidbit:

The letter ס, samach, literally means support; i.e., Hashem [God] supports all those who rely on Him. The very shape of this letter, which is in the form of a circle, represents protection and support from all sides… When a person is resolute in his faith and recognizes God’s Presence everywhere, he is protected from all sides. The wicked who are oblivious to God are סעפים (seiafim), irresolute, and do not merit Divine Protection.

I respond to this below.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ס (verses 113-120)

[CLICK for glossary]

קיג סֵעֲפִים שָׂנֵאתִי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.
קיד סִתְרִי וּמָגִנִּי אָתָּה; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 114 Thou art my cover and my shield; in Thy dvar do I hope.
קטו סוּרוּ-מִמֶּנִּי מְרֵעִים; וְאֶצְּרָה, מִצְוֺת אֱלֹהָי 115 Depart from me, ye evildoers; and I may keep the mitzvot of my God.
קטז סָמְכֵנִי כְאִמְרָתְךָ וְאֶחְיֶה; וְאַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי, מִשִּׂבְרִי 116 Support me according unto Thy amirah, and I may live; and put me not to shame in my hope.
קיז סְעָדֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה; וְאֶשְׁעָה בְחֻקֶּיךָ תָמִיד 117 Care Thou for me, and I shall be saved; and I will occupy myself with Thy hukim always.
קיח סָלִיתָ, כָּל-שׁוֹגִים מֵחֻקֶּיךָ: כִּי-שֶׁקֶר, תַּרְמִיתָם 118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.
קיט סִגִים–הִשְׁבַּתָּ כָל-רִשְׁעֵי-אָרֶץ; לָכֵן, אָהַבְתִּי עֵדֹתֶיךָ 119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.
קכ סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יָרֵאתִי 120 My flesh stiffens for fear of Thee; and I fear Thy mishpatim.

* * *

I see a juxtaposition between the first two verses (113-114) of stanza ס and its last two verses (119-120). The word אָהָבְתִּי (ahavti), which means ‘I love’ occurs in both 113 and 119.

In the first instance, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, whereas the second use of ‘I love’ is in relation to God’s eidot. In the first instance, the Psalmist describes God as his ‘shield’ (verse 114), hoping for God’s dvar, whereas at the end of the stanza (verse 120) we find his very flesh stiffening in dread of God and his mishpatim.

Let us make use of the glossary that Radak (1160–1235) provides for greater clarity:

In verses 113-114, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, referring to the details of how God’s commandments are to be carried out. This is followed by an acknowledgement of God’s protection and an expression of hope for God’s dvar, which refers to God’s promise.

In verses 119-120, the Psalmist expresses his love for God’s eidot, which are commandments that testify to God’s supremacy and the revelation of Torah (in the general sense). This is followed by his fear of God and His mishpatim, which Radak understands as the the Divine laws that govern human interactions.

The first love is a love for the intricacies of God’s Law, which traditionally religious Jews face every day. This love of the commitment to Divine strictures leads the Psalmist to feel protected and to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. I’ve been there; an intensive focus on the subtleties of our own behaviors may create a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic reality.

The second love is a love for the collective Jewish memory, enshrined in our tradition, testifying to God’s sovereignty. Today this is unimaginable, and it would overwhelm humankind if realized. How would we live if we actually experienced God’s dominion? Such an awareness leads the Psalmist to fear God. The Almighty rules, aware of every action, and so the Psalmist is most concerned with the mishpatim – the Divine Laws governing his interactions with other human beings. (I’d like to think that God cares most about these.)

* * *

There is more to the story. What leads the Psalmist to love God’s eidot?

119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.

According to the Psalmist, God has taken tangible action against the wicked – He has “removed” them. This is something that flies in the face of my life experience, but it is the Psalmist’s context. For him, it is true. Certainly, if God were to “remove” the wicked I too would likely love and fear Him.

On the other hand, what is the context for the Psalmist’s love for God’s Torah?

113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.

Those hated by the Psalmist are the סעפים (seiafim), the “irresolute”, which the Artscroll Book of Psalms describes as “wicked”.

As always, there is Rashi (1040-1105):

סעיפים שנאתי. חושבי מחשבות און, כמו ׳לכן שעפי ישיבוני׳ (איוב כ:ב), ׳על שתי הסעפים׳ (מלכים-א יח:כא) I hate סעפים: Those who think thoughts of iniquity, like (Job 20:2): “Therefore, my thoughts (סעפי) answer me” [and] (I Kings 18:21): “between two ideas (הסעפים).”

Rashi has made things worse for me.
I must take issue with the Psalmist and the rabbi both.

* * *

Where to begin?

First of all, according to the BDB Dictionary, the root ס-ע-פ has *nothing* to do with iniquity. It can refer to any of the following concepts: “cleave, divide; cleft; branches; divided, half-hearted, divided opinion”. In Biblical Hebrew, the singular סָעֵף (sa’eif) is simply: “a thought”.

In fact, neither of Rashi’s examples support the case for reading ‘iniquity’ into verse 113. The verse in the Book of Job is neutral: ‘Therefore do my thoughts answer me’ (Job 20:2). Verse 18:21 in the first book of Kings comes closer, but Rashi’s comparison still falls short:

כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר עַד-מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים–אִם-יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו, וְאִם-הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו; וְלֹא-עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ, דָּבָר 21 And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said: ‘How long limp ye between two thoughts? If A) the Lord be God, follow Him; but if B) Baal, follow him.’ And the people answered him not a word.

Here, the people’s סְּעִפִּים (thoughts) can be faithful to either A) God or B) Baal. The people have agency of choice; their thoughts are not inherently iniquitous! 

Secondly-

What else does the Psalmist attribute to the “wicked”?

118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.

The word שׁוֹגִים – shogim (those who stray) has the root ש-ג-ג, as Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explicitly underscores in his ‘Metzudat Zion’ commentary: שׁוֹגִים is “מלשון שגגה”. 

Back to the BDB Dictionary: what can this root mean? The possibilities include: “go astray; commit sin or error; sin ignorantly, inadvertently; sin of error.” This root clearly connotes ‘error’; the Talmudic term שוגג (shogeg) refers specifically to one who commits a sin by accident, as opposed to one who does so deliberately. Of all the ways in which one might transgress God’s law, this is the most innocent.

And… which category of Divine commandments are these “wicked” people inadvertently breaking? The hukim! These, as we know from Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are the mitzvot whose reasons have not been revealed – the most impenetrable of all of God’s commandments!

It would seem that the Psalmist hates those who have multiple, potentially conflicting thoughts and believes that God actively punishes those who accidentally break His most inscrutable demands.

I cannot recite these words and mean them.

* * *

It was not my intention to pick fights with Rashi and the Psalmist, but what am I to do? Perhaps I would be less frustrated with the thrust of stanza ס if this strain of judgmentalism were only a biblical phenomenon.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, validates my sentiment in his book Basic Values in Jewish Religion, which includes a chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’. He writes (pp. 96-98):

The attitude of traditional religion towards those who doubt its tenets has been one of unqualified condemnation…

[However,] our Bible is not lacking in expressions of religious doubt… Notable is the fact that the Torah pictures Abraham, who is always taken as the exemplar of religious faith, whose faith, tested by ten trials, withstood them all, as nevertheless questioning the justice of God…

[Abraham’s] doubt wrings from him an exclamation of horror, but he expresses it interrogatively… His was ‘a faith that inquires’…

There is… a doubt that is an inseparable accompaniment of religious faith… [There is] a constructive doubt arising from the eternal refusal of the human spirit to acquiesce in evil.

It would be absurd for me to post Rabbi Kaplan’s chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’ in its entirety, but it’s tempting. Truer words have never been written.

* * *

Going back to Rashi, the great rabbi makes one subsequent point in his commentary on verse 113 (continued from above):

כשאתה קורא סְעִפִים הוא שם המחשבה, וכשאתה קורא סֵעֲפִים נופל הלשון על החושבים אותה When you read סְעִפִים (se’ifim), it concerns the thought, but when you read סֵעֲפִים (seiafim), the language refers to those who think it.

In other words, according to the language of the Bible, which does not include any vowels, the Psalmist may not hate anyone at all – he might find hateful only those *thoughts* that challenge the Torah’s veracity.

The rabbi is making a deliberate interpretive choice here, and let’s not forget the two biblical examples of סעיפים, which Rashi cites himself: Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. Both examples are referring *only* to people’s thoughts, rather than to those who think them.

I think this is a crucial distinction because the Psalmist is writing about *hate*.

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

* * *

As often happens, my learning brings me back to memories of Papa.

My father was a man of deeply rooted morality and intensely firm convictions, he was incredibly passionate and at times even fiery in debate, but he never harbored hate for any person. Certainly, he had disdain for particular ideas and schools of thought, but he would engage with those that he disagreed with – because ideas mattered to him.

Furthermore, Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism, and sincerely wondering aloud at how otherwise intelligent family members could vote for the Labor party. He didn’t hate people for thinking differently than him; he simply found it perplexing.

The Psalmist felt threatened by complexity.
My father, confident in his morals and reasoning, wished to understand.

Papa would certainly have agreed with Maimonides (1135-1204) in his foreword to his ‘Eight Chapters On Ethics’:

One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 31

Does the traditional recitation of kaddish do honor to the non-believer?

I don’t see why not, but there are those for whom this is a sticking point. Writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales was uncomfortable with the notion of reciting the traditional kaddish for her atheist father; she instead wrote a personal version of it to honor him (from her website):

My father… was an atheist, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.

Rabbi Marjorie Berman faced a similar conundrum when her anti-religious mother passed away, and while she didn’t rewrite the kaddish itself, she took a non-traditional approach to its recitation (from ‘Ritual Well’ blog):

It didn’t feel right to join a daily minyan … my mother was anti-religious. I decided the best way to remember her was to take a daily morning walk with a friend and say kaddish by the water in a beautiful and wild park…

At first, I too was struck by the incongruity of honoring my father this way.

He was an atheist… He had not recited kaddish for his father or mother because it wasn’t something that held meaning for him, and I don’t think he would particularly want me to recite it for him.

– Me, Blog #1

Nevertheless, I happen to be inclined towards tradition (partially for lack of imagination). This sentiment resonates:

The kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 39

My father may not have held a traditional belief in God, and he may not have been religiously oriented, but he held the Jewish heritage in high regard (blog # 10). He would have wanted to be buried according to Orthodox customs, just as he was; he would have respected my decision to recite the mourner’s kaddish for him in a traditional way.

Those of us who opt for the traditional approach are no less empowered to personalize our kaddish experiences. Jewish educator Nili Isenberg put the words of kaddish to the tune of Adele’s song ‘Hello’ (see the video above) while reciting kaddish for her father; artist Max Miller made a painting of every synagogue in which he recited kaddish (maxmillerstudio.com) in his father’s memory; and I have my blog.

Reflecting upon this now, I realize that my father’s religious beliefs and practices have only barely and almost imperceptibly shaped the contours my kaddish journey. This series should more aptly be called ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for his loving father’.

* * *

I happen to be inclined towards tradition.

Most of Jewish mourning practice is custom, rather than halakha. The recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a widely held custom, not unlike reciting Psalms at the unveiling of the tombstone, usually including segments of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is unique among the Psalms in its length, for it contains eight verses corresponding to each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet – a total of 176 verses. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4b, this Psalm is referred to as the eight-faceted Psalm (תמניא אפין), and thematically it describes the Psalmist’s striving to live according to the Torah of God. Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK, 1160–1235) points out that every single verse contains one of eleven words that refer to Torah:

בכל פסוק ופסוק יש בו 1) דרך, או 2) תורה, או 3) עדות, או 4) פקודים, או 5) מצוה, או 6) אמירה, או 7) דבור, או 8) משפט, או 9) צדק, או 10) אמונה, או 11) חוקים, ואלא המילות הם חלקי כל התורה Every single verse contains [one of the following]: 1) derekh, or 2) Torah, or 3) eidot, or 4) pekudim, or 5) mitzvah, or 6) amirah, or 7) dibur, or 8) mishpat, or 9) tzedek, or 10) emunah, or 11) hukim, and these are the words that [together] are [all] the parts of the entire Torah.

Stop.
I’m getting carried away already.
(texts do that to me)

Why am I doing this?

* * *

Before delving further, I must articulate a truth: I have never found the recitation of Psalms meaningful.

Most individual psalms involve the praise of God—for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond.

Wikipedia

I praise God very sparingly and with sincerity only in my own words. I tell God that I doubt His existence more often than I make requests of Him. I find the faith-oriented language of the Psalms unrelatable in both form and content, and I find their rote recitation mindless under the best of circumstances. I am not in possession of simple faith.

In Jewish tradition, however, the Psalms are a big deal. Rabbi Levi Cooper, a former teacher of mine, wrote (Jerusalem Post):

Rabbi Avraham David Wahrman of Buczacz (1771-1840)… cited the Midrash which describes King David as requesting from the Almighty that his Psalms be granted unique status… Psalms should be read and pondered. Moreover, readers of Psalms should receive reward as if they were studying difficult passages of the Oral Law(Midrash Shoher Tov 1:8).

Rabbi Cooper suggests we ponder the Psalms. This, at least, is a step up from mouthing their syllables endlessly, brow furrowed; torso swaying; hands clenching on bus rides.

Psalms will be recited at the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, and I have an opportunity to prepare myself accordingly. I am indeed inclined towards tradition, but disinclined towards ceding my mental and spiritual faculties to its champions. I am skeptical of God’s good nature and concern for His creations, but I am mistrustful too of my narrow, human inclinations.

Some say this is what we do. I say no; this is what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reciting Psalm 119 to honor our loved ones by selecting from it those verses that correspond to their names. My father was א-ל-כ-ס-נ-ד-ר (Alexander), comprised of seven Hebrew letters, each of which is represented by eight verses.

I will turn to our tradition for wisdom; and then I will respond.

* * *

Radak’s 11 keywords for Psalm 119

Before tackling the first eight verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to the letter א (alef*), let’s get back to Radak and the eleven keywords of this particular Psalm. This will be instructive to our learning, as we make our way through the verses.

*A side note:
Alef means to learn/ study/ train/ teach, according to the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 104a; therefore א-ל-פ (a-l-f) is the root of the word אולפן (ulpan), which is an institute or program for the intensive study of Hebrew.

Radak explicates each of the eleven terms as follows (translations mine):

Torah means ‘the attribute of the mitzvah, [which focuses on] how it is performed’. Derekh means ‘the improvement of [your] character traits’. Hukim are ‘the mitzvot whose reason[s] have not been revealed’. Mitzvot are ‘those of which it is [explicitly] stated [in the Torah] that these are commandments’. Mishpatim are ‘the laws between man and his fellow [man]’. Eidot are ‘the mitzvot that [serve as] testimony and memory’ [of the revelation of Torah and God’s supremacy]. Pikudim are ‘the mitzvot instructed by common sense, which are [naturally] stored and archived in man’s heart’. Tzedek is ‘the justification of the mitzvot, for they were uttered in righteousness’. Dibur and Amirah are ‘[the verbal expression] basic to all mitzvot; and dibur and amirah are also reminder[s] of the promise, which God promised’. Emunah is ‘the fulfillment of God’s word[s] at the Creation of the World’.

Precision and systematization are the names of the game.

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PSALM 119:א (verses 1-8)

[CLICK for glossary]

א אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ– הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה 1 Happy are they that are upright in the derekh; who walk in the Torah of God.
ב אַשְׁרֵי, נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו; בְּכָל-לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ 2 Happy are they that keep His eidot; that seek Him with the whole heart.
ג אַף, לֹא-פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה; בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ 3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His drakhim (plural).
ד אַתָּה, צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ– לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד 4 Thou hast ordained Thy pikudim that we should observe them diligently.
ה אַחֲלַי, יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי– לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ 5 My wishes are that my drakhim (plural) were directed to observe Thy hukim!
ו אָז לֹא-אֵבוֹשׁ– בְּהַבִּיטִי, אֶל-כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ 6 Then I shall not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy mitzvot.
ז אוֹדְךָ, בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב– בְּלָמְדִי, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 7 I will give thanks unto Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy misphatei tzedek.
ח אֶת-חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר; אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד-מְאֹד 8 I will observe Thy hukim; O forsake me not utterly.

It’s a happy coincidence that my father’s name begins with alef. I’ll be jumping around from stanza to stanza, based upon the letters of the name אלכסנדר, but the beginning is a fortuitous place to start – particularly with a Bible chapter of such daunting length. 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.”

There are three aspects to this first stanza that draw my thoughts.

The first thing I notice, given the glossary of eleven keywords that Radak provided us, is that the word derekh (or its plural) occurs thrice in this stanza, and the word hukim occurs twice. Verse 5 serves as a transition between the initial emphasis on derekh in verses 1, 3, and 5 to the later use of hukim in verses 5 and 8.

The first two occurrences of derekh are references to ‘ways of God’, whereas the third instance (verse 5) refers to the psalmist’s own human ways. These ‘ways of man’ are explicitly portrayed as lacking natural relationship to hukim (in the same verse), which are those Divine commandments that confound all human reason.

My second realization is that there exists another shift between verses 3 and 4, in the manner of how the psalmist is referring to God. In the first three verses, God is referred to in the third person, but verses 4-8 appeal to Him personally. This transition precedes the transition between derekh and hukim by just one verse.

It is as though the human can only bring himself to truly accept the incomprehensible hukim by way of personal relationship with God. Still, in verse 8 the psalmist promises to abide by the hukim regardless, in hope that he will not be forsaken.

Thirdly, the word אֵבוֹשׁ (I will be ashamed) in verse 6 immediately recalls for me the thirteenth benediction of the Amidah’s (the core of the prayer service’s) nineteen benedictions, which we recite thrice daily. That benediction, which refers to the righteous among us, reminds me of my Papa (blog #28), as I have written.

The Amidah requests that God ‘cast our lot with the righteous ones, and we will never be ashamed, for we trust in You’, whereas in Psalm 119 the author puts the burden upon his own shoulders: man will only cease to be ashamed once he has directed his ‘human ways’ to observe God’s impenetrable demands.

The relationship between shame and faith in God is not clear to me. Are we to be ashamed for doubting God or for something else? And how would devotion to God assuage our human shame? If a person of true faith were to sin, wouldn’t his shame be all the greater for his faith? And isn’t the pious man with no shame potentially a great danger?

Papa was righteous and pure of heart without having drawn inspiration from the Book of Psalms, and his personal ‘way’ was to be repelled by lack of reason. I am proudest of my parents for their authentic decency, and -even more so- for their integrity.