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Commentary on Tanakh Talks 12/28/20: Complaint Psalms & Divine Help

David Dirlam

Psalms are a favorite topic for liturgical musicians of all Abrahamic faiths. Many worshippers see them as God-praising; but to end our Tanakh studies this trying year, we examined psalms of complaint. Rabbi Edery began our study not with an ancient psalm, but with an exquisite modern version by Leonard Cohen, the renowned poet who died just four years ago.

I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
But love’s the only engine of survival.

So, who was the “little Jew?” Richard answered from his recent reading of Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? that it was a committee of priests. Of course, whether they were priests, Levites, monarchs, prophets, or less distinct Jews, from the perspective of the great span of Jewish history, they were all “little Jews.” I offered the hidden message of the song to be that all the civilizations that didn’t survive based their civilizations on conquest. Rabbi Edery added that those ancient empires and their religions are gone, while Jewish traditions have survived through the ages. Richard objected with the question of whether modern Hebrew is a created language. My NTC Hebrew and English Dictionary confirms the existence of many Hebraicized words of modern origin. But the Rabbi reminded us of all the beautiful poetry written by Jews over the ages. Perhaps Hebrew endured because it was not used every day but preserved out of our love for our ancient liturgy.

That launched the discussion into the ancient psalms of complaint like in Psalm 10, where the psalmist complains of the wicked not only persecuting the faithful, the poor, and the oppressed but even sneering at God. Ruth observed that the psalmist was speaking not just for himself, but for his entire community, and that he does not deny God. She added that the salvation of Judaism has been that our beliefs have survived. I asked how long we could have survived without our love for each other, and Don observed that the current politics of the pandemic has done little for the poor. Richard added that the contemporary feel of the psalmist’s complaint is due to the unchanging aspects of the human condition. 

The Rabbi reflected that in synagogues today, we do not ask “Why are you not acting, God?” We feel that we are not supposed to say such complaints, but the psalms allow us, even tell us how to complain. They speak for us, “Arise God. Plead your own cause. We built a temple for you, and you are letting people destroy it.” This puts everything on God’s side. It has nothing to do with us. To see the complaint in everyday life, I offered a metaphor that Leonard Cohen set up of God being love. We can then ask when we have been loving but were persecuted, why has love not worked? Leonard Cohen gave us an answer from his broad perspective. If we see history from across the ages, love does work. Back to the source of the metaphor, across the ages, God also prevails. Perhaps, as Rabbi Edery offered, a little marriage counseling may be needed between us and God.

Next week, we will return to the harsh complaint within Psalm 22, which has the instruction to be sung to the tune of the Hind in the Morning. I found the instruction jarring because I was thinking of deer rollicking. So, I searched the internet to find more about the tune. In the morning, deer seek shelter for sleep, away from predators. I also found an exquisite video that conveyed such a quest at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awW26052_ck.

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782