Mizmor 30, Yosef, and Hanukah

For a printable PDF version of this article click here, for a shorter Hebrew version of the article click here, and for a source sheet to give this over as a shiur click here.

Mizmor 30, Yosef and Hanukah

God does not whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay His presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it.

Cormac McCarthy, ‘The Crossing’

A widespread custom in many communities is to recite Mizmor (Psalm) 30, throughout Hanukah, in place of, or in addition to, the daily psalm recited at the end of Shaharit. The custom stems from at least the period of the Geonim, and fascinatingly, according to the Siddur Troies (an 11th century French siddur, associated with the bet midrash of Rashi), was widespread practice amongst pre-expulsion Anglo Jewry.

The simplest reason for its recitation at Hanukah is the mention of a much earlier Hanukat HaBayit, the dedication of the Temple, in its opening line.

א  מִזְמוֹר:  שִׁיר-חֲנֻכַּת הַבַּיִת לְדָוִד.

1 A Psalm; a Song at the Dedication of the House; of David.

I would like to suggest however that the relevance of Mizmor 30 to this time of year lies in much more than its opening line. In order to understand its significance let us analyse the content of the Mizmor. Yet before we do so, a couple of prefatory remarks about Sefer Tehillim as a whole.

Sefer Tehillim (Psalms) can usefully be described as the opposite of the rest of the Tanakh (Bible). If the Tanakh as a whole is God speaking to man – whether through the narrative sections, the prophets, or legal instruction – Tehillim is man speaking to God, throughout the range of, often extreme, human experiences.

As such, most of the mizmorim are written without any reference to the precise events that lay behind their composition.  The reason for this appears to be the attempt to make the experiences of the author universally applicable to all those who find themselves in similar situations. By unhitching the emotional and spiritual response of the author from the circumstances which led to the Psalm’s composition, all those who feel the need to cry out to God, whether in joy or sorrow, elation or suffering are able to make use of the work. It is presumably this reason that accounts for Sefer Tehillim’s unique and central role in Jewish prayer and practice.

With this in mind let us turn to Mizmor 30.

The first section opens with the author’s praise of God.

ב  אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְהוָה, כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי;    וְלֹא-שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי.

2 I will exalt You, Hashem, for You have pulled me up, and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.

ג  יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי–    שִׁוַּעְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ, וַתִּרְפָּאֵנִי.

3 O Hashem my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me;
ד  יְהוָה–הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן-שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי;    חִיִּיתַנִי, מיורדי- (מִיָּרְדִי-) בוֹר. 4 O Hashem, You raised up my soul from the nether-world; You gave me life, that I should not go down to the pit.

It appears that a dramatic and positive change has taken place in the life of this individual, whose situation has been reversed from a place of darkness and despair to one of safety and security. As mentioned above, we are given no clue as to the precise circumstances that the author found himself in. Yet the choice of words: pulled me up, healed me, raised me up, given me life – in contrast to the nether-world, the pit, seems to describe a person who has been in a place of crisis and depression, who thanks to God has found a new life. On account of this transformation, the author turns in the next section to others.

ה  זַמְּרוּ לַיהוָה חֲסִידָיו;    וְהוֹדוּ, לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ.

5 Sing praise to Hashem, His pious ones, and give thanks to His holy name.

ו  כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ–    חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ:
בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי;    וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה.

6 For His anger lasts only for a moment, but His favour is for a life-time; in the evening one lies down in tears, yet arises with joy in the morning

He emphasises that others too should learn from his experience, and should realise that God has the ability to help them turn around their lives, so that ‘one who lies down in tears in the evening can rise up in the morning in joy’. Internalisation of this idea should bring one to praise God. And yet, once again, we must point out that we are none the wiser as to why the author lay down upon his bed in tears.

All this changes in the following verse:

ז  וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי  בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם

7 Now I had said in my tranquility: ‘I shall never fall.’

This verse stands out for a number of reasons.

Firstly it is the central verse of the Mizmor, with an equal number of verses either side of it, thereby attracting our attention to it.

Secondly its structure is completely different from the rest of the Mizmor. The other verses until now have been made up of two balancing and complementary parts, in what is known as Biblical parallelism (I will praise You, Hashem, for You have pulled me up  ßà and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over meO Hashem, You raised up my soul from the nether-world  ßà You gave me life, that I should not go down to the pit) creating a harmonious rhythm in keeping with the theme of the Mizmor. By contrast, verse 7 breaks that structure with a single stark clause. (To best appreciate the significance of rhythm for imparting meaning, always make sure to read Tehillim outloud)

Thirdly, and most significantly, the explicit ‘I’ – אני. Where until now the first-person has been assimilated into the verb in the way in why Hebrew grammar allows – ארוממך I will praise you,  שועתי… תרפאני – I called out to you… You healed me’, in our verse the ‘I’ stands alone, detached from the verb – ואני אמרתי, And I said. The ‘I’ screams out to us. The stand-alone first-person, represents a personality that stood alone, self-confident and secure in its ability to manage its own life. In my past before I fell, I was sure of myself, confident that I could stand alone requiring assistance neither from others nor from God. In others words, our author saw himself as the centre of the world, invincible – what the Greeks called hubristic – proud, certain that he would never fall… But then he fell. He fell because of his ‘I’. And from this fall, the Mizmor continues:

ח  יְהוָה- בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז:הִסְתַּרְתָּ פָנֶיךָ;    הָיִיתִי נִבְהָל.

8 But all is through Your favour, Hashem – Your might supported my greatness, if You were to hide Your face, I would be confounded

And after I fell, it was You, Hashem, (in contrast to ‘I’) who stood me up again. Now I seek Your presence in my life, and do not have the arrogance to see myself as the sole author of my fate. I appreciate my skills and talents, yet understand Your role in them.

ט  אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא;    וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן.

9 To You Hashem, will I call, and to my Master will I make supplication:

י  מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי,    בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר;    הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ.

10 ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?
Shall the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?

יא  שְׁמַע-יְהוָה וְחָנֵּנִי;    ְהוָה, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי

11 Hear, Hashem, and be gracious to me; O Hashem, be my helper

The Mizmor continues with the author’s resolution for the future – to You will I call out – אקרא – and now not only has the ‘I’ been restored to the verb, but the harmonious parallelism has also returned. ‘What profit is there…’ – why should I die and go to a place where I cannot praise You?

יב  הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי, לְמָחוֹל לִי:    פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי; וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה.

12 You turned my lament into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me in gladness;

יג  לְמַעַן, יְזַמֶּרְךָ כָבוֹד–    וְלֹא יִדֹּם:
יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי,    לְעוֹלָם אוֹדֶך

13 So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent;
O Hashem my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

The Mizmor concludes with the same theme with which it had begun – that with the descent to a low place, Hashem has the ability to turn one’s life around again. The ‘I’ has returned to the verb – אודך I will give thanks to You, – and the rhythm is as it was. If there is a difference in sentiments expressed at the end of the Mizmor in contrast to the beginning, it is that in addition to the awareness and praise of God, the individual’s sense of self-worth receives prominent expression – ‘Your might supported my greatness’ (v.8), ‘my glory may sing praise to You’ (v.13) – and is not nullified in the face of God’s presence, but becomes part of that service.

If our reading is correct – that the Mizmor speaks of a man whose self-centeredness caused his downfall, and as he picked himself up, abandoned his narcissism in favour of God’s presence in his life – we may well ask if we can detect any references to a different story in Tanakh. I would like to suggest – and I haven’t seen this suggestion made anywhere else – that our Mizmor is a conscious and near-explicit commentary on, and response to, a very well-known story of the Tanakh – that of Yosef[1].

The connection is made clear via a number of unusual and rare words and phrases that appear in both Mizmor 30 and the story of Yosef (Bereishit chs. 37-51).

  • Firstly and most obviously, the pit or בור. In Mizmor 30 the author describes his salvation as ‘חִיִּיתַנִי מִיָּרְדִי בוֹר‘ – You have given me life from those who go down to the pit. The pit is the prime symbol of Yosef’s early struggles, whose life is one of extreme ups and downs. Not only is he cast into the pit by his brothers prior to his sale (Bereishit 37:24 – no water, just snakes and scorpions), he is raised up by the Midianites, sold down to Egypt, rises in the House of Potifar, before being cast down again into the dungeon-prison, also described as the בור or pit, from which he is eventually called for by Pharoah (Bereishit 41:19)
  • Secondly, שאול she’ol, the depths or the nether-world. In the Mizmor, God is described as הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי – You raised me up from the depths of my soul. The word appears to refer to the grave or the underworld, and although it does not appear frequently in Tanakh, we find it being used repeatedly by Yosef’s father, Yaakov. For instance, with the cessation of the formal mourning period for Yosef, Yaakov refuses to be comforted by his sons and daughters, stating:

וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ אָבִיו ‘For I will go down in mourning for my son to She’ol’ (Bereishit 37:35)[2]

  • Thirdly, and perhaps most convincingly, ‘מה בצע ‘for what benefit?’. This phrase appears only twice in Tanakh, in our Mizmor in v.10:

מַה בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל שָׁחַת What benefit is there in my blood if I go down to the pit

And once again in Bereishit 37 as Yehudah attempts to convince his brothers to sell Yosef rather than murder him (v.26):

מַה בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת דָּמוֹ

What benefit is derived if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?

  • Finally, and most playfully, the Mizmor’s author thanks God with the words (v.12)

פתחת שקי – You have removed (lit. opened) my sackcloth.

As the brothers return from Egypt to Canaan in order to bring Binyamin back with them to prove to Yosef that they have spoken truthfully, they are spooked as one of them opens his sack to discover it filled with the money he thought he had spent in Egypt (42:27)

וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח הָאֶחָ֜ד אֶת־שַׂקּ֗וֹ לָתֵ֥ת מִסְפּ֛וֹא לַחֲמֹר֖וֹ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כַּסְפּ֔וֹ וְהִנֵּה־ה֖וּא בְּפִ֥י אַמְתַּחְתּֽוֹ:

And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey food in the lodging-place, he saw his money; and, behold, it was in the mouth of his sack. [3]

If these words and phrases are sufficient to establish the connection between the two, what is their significance? It seems clear that the same vanity that the Mizmor describes as the reason for his fall pertains to Yosef. When we first read of the precocious seventeen year old who brings his father slanderous reports of his brothers, and who dreams dreams which appear to place him above his family, it is easy to hear the words of the Mizmor:

וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי  בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם

Now I had said in my tranquility: ‘I shall never fall.’

And then he fell. In Yosef’s case, thrown into a pit and sold as a slave. In ch.39, where Yosef arrives in Egypt he appears to carry on as before. Released from the shackles of his brother’s jealousy, he finds himself far from the pastoral backwater of Canaan, in the house of a senior figure at the heart of the world’s most powerful state. Here at last his talents will be appreciated. And indeed, at first, it appears that everything he touches turns to gold. Under his stewardship his master’s household flourishes and Yosef’s rise continues. The six verses describing this ascent conclude with a surprising detail (39:6)

ויהי יוסף תאר ויפה מראה And Yosef was handsome of form and of beautiful appearance

Considering that we have already known Yosef for a number of chapters we may well ask, why now, at this stage, are we told of his beauty? The simple answer is of course that it is a preface and explanation to the story that follows immediately afterwards – the attempted seduction by his master’s wife. Yet Rashi, drawing on earlier midrashic sources, locates a deeper significance to the description of Yosef’s beauty specifically at this point:

כיון שראה עצמו מושל, התחיל אוכל ושותה ומסלסל בשערו, אמר הקב”ה אביך מתאבל ואתה מסלסל בשערך, אני מגרה בך את הדוב, מיד ותשא אשת אדוניו וגו’

As Yosef saw himself becoming powerful, he began to eat and drink and to curl his hair. Said the Holy One, ‘your father is mourning for you, and yet you are curling your hair?! I will send the bear against you’ – Immediately ‘and his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Yosef and she said “Lie with me”

And once again, Yosef’s sense of self-importance results in catastrophe and being cast down into the pit once again.

Yet Yosef’s greatness, is not only his resistance to the advances of his master’s wife, but his internalisation of the message that lies at the heart of our Mizmor. During those two years in the prison he comes to understand that his skills and success have their source in God. As he tells Pharoah (41:16), who has heard that Yosef possesses remarkable powers of dream interpretation:

בלעדי אלקים יענה את שלום פרעה

That is beyond me; it is God Who will respond with Pharoah’s welfare

And from this point onwards, Yosef never once describes his position without understanding his position in relation to God, whether describing his joys and successes as above, or his anguish and loneliness as in the names he gives to his sons (41:51-52)

נא  וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת-שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר, מְנַשֶּׁה:  כִּי-נַשַּׁנִי אֱ-לֹקים אֶת-כָּל-עֲמָלִי, וְאֵת כָּל-בֵּית אָבִי.

51 And Yosef called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’

נב  וְאֵת שֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִי, קָרָא אֶפְרָיִם:  כִּי-הִפְרַנִי אֱלֹקים, בְּאֶרֶץ עָנְיִי.

52 And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’

.

And if this is so with regards to Yosef’s individual personality, it also holds true with regards to the long, twisting, tragic story of Yosef and his brothers as a whole.

Nehama Leibowitz, in a wonderful essay entitled ‘How To Learn a Chapter of Tanakh’, introduces the concept of the leitwort or מילת מנחה, a single word whose consistent repetition within a chapter or larger story, brings to the fore a central motif that may otherwise have remained hidden. Her favoured example is that of the root ש-ל-ח shelach – to send, which appears numerous times throughout the Yosef narrative. Yaakov sends Yosef down to visit his brothers, the brothers send him down to Egypt, where is he sent to prison, and afterwards sent for by Pharoah. Years later Yaakov send the brothers to Egypt to purchase food, and they are sent back by Yosef to bring back Binyamin[4]. At first glance this reading appears to reveal that the structure of the story has at its heart the theme of sending, of journeys, movements of persons from one place to another.

However Nehama Leibowitz deepens the insight by asking the simple question of who is doing the sending? She points out that throughout the story, it appears to be one of people sending other people, and thus when we arrive at the conclusion of the story we receive a surprise that gives a new and powerful significance to the story. Seeing the shock on his brothers’ faces after revealing his true identity, Yosef seeks to reassure them:

ה  וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ, וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, הֵנָּה:  כִּי לְמִחְיָה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.

5 And now do not be upset, nor let it trouble you that you sold me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life.

ו  כִּי-זֶה שְׁנָתַיִם הָרָעָב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ; וְעוֹד חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים, אֲשֶׁר אֵין-חָרִישׁ וְקָצִיר.

6 For two years of famine in the land have already passed; and there are yet five years, in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest.

ז  וַיִּשְׁלָחֵנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם, לָשׂוּם לָכֶם שְׁאֵרִית בָּאָרֶץ, וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לָכֶם, לִפְלֵיטָה גְּדֹלָה

7 And God sent me ahead of you to establish a foothold in the land, and to give you life, a great deliverance.

Yosef plays here upon the ultimate irony of the whole story: that the most cruel and terrible act – the sale of a brother into slavery – is also the unanticipated event which will ultimately save the family from starvation twenty years later. Says Yosef to his brothers, do not be fearful, for behind your own actions lay God’s plan – it was not you who sent me here, but Him.

And in the words of a famous Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 85:1):

(:ר’ שמואל בר נחמן פתח כי אנכי ידעתי את המחשבות וגו’ (ירמיה כט יא

 שבטים היו עוסקים במכירתו של יוסף, ויעקב היה עוסק בשקו ובתעניתו, ויהודה עוסק לקחת אשה,והקב”ה בורא אורו של מלך המשיח

Rav Shmuel bar Nahmani expounded the verse, ‘For I know my thoughts concerning you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope’ (Yirmiyahu 29:11).

The tribes were taken up with selling Yosef,

Yaakov was taken up with his sackcloth and fasting,

Yehuda was taken up with finding a wife

And the Holy One Blessed Be He, was creating the light of the Moshiach

 

Both in the Mizmor, and in the story of Yosef and his brothers, the events of our lives take place on both a human plain and a divine one. And in the words of our Mizmor:

ח  יְהוָה- בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז:

8 But all is through Your favour, Hashem – Your might supported my greatness

It will have occurred to the discerning reader by now that Shabbat Hanukah invariably coincides with the parshiyot of Yosef and that the recitation of Mizmor 30 at this time of year must surely be in-part a recognition of that.

And if we have already come so far, perhaps we can suggest that the themes we have discussed are also of great relevance for Hanukah itself. The original event which Hanukah and the Book of Maccabbees celebrates is the astonishingly successful military campaign waged by Yehudah HaMaccabbee and his comrades against the Syrian Greeks. Yet Jewish tradition over the centuries has never felt completely comfortable with rejoicing over a military victory – no matter how pure the original motives were – for celebration of physical might runs the risk of falling foul of the Biblical warning (Devarim 8:17):

וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ:  כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה. And you will say in your heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand has made for me this wealth.’

Or, in the phrase we have been exploring:

 וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִי  בַּל-אֶמּוֹט לְעוֹלָם

 Now I had said in my tranquility: ‘I shall never fall.’

And so instead the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) focuses our attention on the miracle of the jar of oil which burned for so much longer than expected. When taken together, these two elements – the military victory and the miracle of the oil – present a combined picture in which man’s salvation, success and achievement are seen as the combination of human endeavor and divine assistance, and whose purpose is to direct us away from self-congratulation and towards a renewed and reinvigorated relationship with God. So let us finish with that with which we started:

בחנוכה: ארוממך ה’

On Hanukah: “I will exalt You Hashem”

(Masekhet Sofrim 18:3)

[1] It should be pointed out that Rashi explains the Mizmor as referring to David after the affair with Bat Sheva, and also cites a midrash connecting it to Megillat Esther.

[2] See also 42:38 and 44:29

[3] I thank Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt for pointing this out to me as I was putting this article together.

[4] The root ש-ל-ח appears at least seventeen times in the Yosef stories. See Bereishit Ch. 37:13,14,22,32 Ch. 38:17,20,23,25 Ch. 41:8,14, Ch. 42: 4,16, Ch. 43:4,5,8,14, Ch. 45:5,7,8

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