A preview of a conversation I’ll be leading at an all-night Shavu’ot study session this evening—happy holiday to all.
Ostensibly simple, theologically maddening, Psalm 146 is one of my favorite biblical poems—precisely, perhaps, because its ostensible simplicity is so maddening. And since it gets recited each day in the morning service, where it appears just after “Ashrei” and as the beginning of the hymns of praise that precede the prayer service proper, it’s hard to avoid.
The problem at the heart of this poem, and its daily recitation, is that it isn’t true. But before I get to that, let’s look at the structure.
First, it has a frame. The first and last words are “Halleluya,” an invitation to praise God. The first two verses announce that the author, and the person reciting it, views praising God as an essential, ongoing activity; the last verse stresses God’s eternity and his special relationship with the Jewish people.
Verses 3-5 form a strophe in which the poet (and worshiper, by implication) proclaim that humans should not look to their fellow-humans for aid and succor; human life is fleeting, human bodies are no more than soil, powerless and useless as soon as life leaves them. Therefore, it’s only people who seek God’s help who are truly happy.
Verse 6 proclaims why God differs from man—God is the maker of the heavens, the earth and the seas.
I prefer an alternative reading of the last three words of this verse, which connect them to the verses that follow—read ‘olam, “world,” as ‘avalim, people who suffer injustice, so the words would read “He enforces truth for those who suffer injustice.” That connects it to the chain of claims about God that forms the core of the psalm. God, says the poet, feeds the hungry, frees the imprisoned, cures the blind, watches out for foreigners (“strangers” in the translation, but the word means what we today call an “Other,” a person who does not belong or in some fashion is not accepted by the society in which he lives), and punishes the wicked.
It all sounds wonderful, except for a small empirical complication: unfortunately, when we look at the world around us, we see injustice, suffering, exclusion, famine, and illness, and God, as far as we can tell, doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.
So is the psalmist a liar? Are we liars when we recite the psalm every morning?
The fundamentalist will go with the text and deny the evidence. If the psalmist said so, it must be true. There are three versions of this: the first says that the people suffering, bereft of divine intervention, must deserve it in some way perhaps not evident to us; the second says that our vision is skewed, and what we see is not suffering and injustice; the third says that the assistance that God provides will manifest itself in some other way or in some other time (for example, in the next world).
More attractive is a more modern view: that the psalm presents an ideal. These are God’s standards. He operates in his own way and on his own schedule, and we cannot second-guess him. But we bear responsibility to heal the sick, support the poor, to bring this divine standard of justice down to earth in the running of our societies.
But this reading presents a theological problem, because it lets God off the hook. We can do all those things, and we could perhaps decide that these are important standards to have, without God or the psalmist telling us about them. Aren’t there lots of people who work hard for social justice who don’t recite Psalm 146 every day, and who don’t see it as the word of God?
So maybe a socially-conscious Jew who holds the truth dear should not recite this obvious falsehood. That’s certainly an option, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to take the view of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik that the halacha, the fact that this psalm is part of the daily liturgy, is a given for the Orthodox Jew, and that religious creativity derives precisely from the personal encounter with both natural and halachic facts.
If so, the question is how do we read the psalm each day? There are a number of possibilities. I already mentioned one—we can see it as a manifesto, a standard we should aspire to in our own actions.
Other options: read it mournfully, as representing an ideal that should be but is not; read it angrily, as an accusation against an uncaring God; read it cynically, as an expression of the disconnect between the psalmist’s skewed view of the world and our own; read it satirically, as an absurdity highlighting the miscomprehensions of the religious soul.
At different points in my life I’ve read it in every way I’ve described here. I can’t say which one is correct, or if there is any one correct reading. But, each morning, as I don my tefillin, I need to make a decision about how to read it for that day. “Whatever gods are––our own fearful voices/or intimations from the unseen order
of things,” as another poet I love to quote said, I read these verses in praise of God. I can’t praise him for doing what I don’t see him doing in the world. But I guess I praise him each morning for forcing me to make the choice about how to read Psalm 146.