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Friday, June 02, 2006

Thoughts on Psalm One

Notes/drash prepared for Shavout

Happy is the one who has not followed the
counsel of the wicked.
or taken the path of sinners,
or joined the company of the insolent;
rather, the Teaching of Hashem is his delight,
and he studies that teaching day and night.

He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives.

No so the wicked;
rather, they are like chaff that wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not survive judgment,
nor will sinners, in the assembly of the righteous,
For the Lord cherishes the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

There are a couple of interesting things about this Psalm.
Considering it is the opening Psalm, you would think it would be one that had a "Psalm for David" heading. But this is one of the few psalms that are not attributed to him..
Also, it isn’t a "devotional" psalm on its face. There’s no outpouring of emotion. No outcry to God. The Psalm focuses on the human, not the divine. Even the style of writing isn’t like the usual Psalm. It reads like something from proverbs.

So why was this piece chosen to begin the (first) Book of Psalms?

Its job is to establish right off the bat, certain fundamental ideas.

1. Torah is indispensable in the individual’s attainment of righteousness. And its rewards are immediate.

2. It mirrors the "conversation" that is seen in Torah. Torah is a revelation, or reaching out from God to man. The Decalogue opens with I am the Lord your God," and closes with "your neighbor". Divine to human. The Book of Psalms opens with "Happy is the one" and ends with "Let every soul praise God. Hallelujah" Human to Divine

3. The study of sacred text, of God’s word, is a holy act and a form of worship.

4. It establishes the assumption of a divinely ordained, universal moral order. You can’t cry out for justice, or mercy, for righting wrong, without a grounded conviction about the nature of God and his involvement in our world.

5. It embraces faith in the individual human to transform society..

"Happy is the one..." This is not some fuzzy promise of a future reward. It’s a description, an observation of the psalmist of an existing reality. The observer is expressing wonderment and admiration over the individual’s state of being. It isn’t "happy" as we generally tend to think of the word. It is a more intense and sustainable form.

The state of happiness is not a natural one. It is not something that you can "fall into". It requires specific actions on the part of the individual. Essentially, one has to avoid harmful social situations. But this by itself is insufficient. "Happiness" demands that we be proactive by focusing our energies on God’s Teaching, on Torah.
"Rather, the Teaching of the Lord is his delight."

The way one "studied" the teaching of God in biblical times was through memorization, oral recitation and repetition. So one would actually utter the words of Torah, and to do so was to not only engage in study but to engage in worship.
So the first part of the Psalm shows us how the individual is to attain "happiness". The second part expands on the perks of embracing the Torah and rejecting the ways of the wicked.

He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
who’s foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives.

The use of the tree as a metaphor was common and is used elsewhere in the Tanach. There are also ancient egyptian writings that compare man to trees. But as we’ve seen time and time again, judaism adopts something from another culture and makes it uniquely its own.
The image of the tree itself suggests regeneration. And the tree in our psalm is a fruit laden tree.

So immediately, the image of this fruit laden tree invokes images of usefulness, of enriching the lives of others.

The word "planted" is really inadequate. My understanding is that the Hebrew word used suggests "well-rooted". Meaning its roots run deep. It is not susceptible to the whims of wind. And like a well-rooted tree, the righteous individual in our psalm is rooted in Torah. And this gives him the strength to withstand the storms that inevitably visit each of us.
Our tree has a constant source of water. It is not dependent on rain. It is nurtured at all times. By studying Torah, we are constantly nourishing our spirits. We are not dependent on the moral climate of our times. The righteous man in the Psalm will not wither even when surrounded by wickedness, because he has his own source of nourishment.

Unlike most fruit trees, this tree is always green. So its leaves are always there to provide shelter to others. Its fruit is always available to provide sustenance to others. And so to, does the individual devoted to Torah provide blessings to others. I would guess both as a role model and by how he or she interacts with their community based on having a firm grounding in Torah.

I like the line "and whatever it produces thrives" because this can be describing either the tree or the person in the first verse of the Psalm. Specific measurable results for our righteous person. Prosperity.

The wicked, apparently have no roots. They will not thrive. They are chaff that the wind blows away. This is a difficult statement to take literally today, where there seem to be many examples of the wicked thriving.

The assembly of the righteous. Now our individual has company. He is no longer the a lone tree withstanding the winds of adversity. How he has a membership in the righteous club. No sinners allowed.

Psalm ends with "For the Lord cherishes the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed." Cherishes is more accurately translated as "know". How is knowing the righteous a contradiction to the wicked being doomed. Apparently, the word "know" had a technical meaning in treaties and similar texts. When a superior "knows" one that is under him, it meant that he placed that individual under his protection and care.
So here we have God protecting the righteous, while the wicked, who spurn His protection, are doomed.

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