A Thought on Psalm 19
Several years ago, I was attending a rabbinic retreat in New Hampshire at a summer camp located in a wooded area of the state. As part of this gathering, we were fortunate to have with us Tom Wessel, a “terrestrial ecologist” who was a professor at Antioch University of New England. Tom took us on a nature walk into the woods. We didn't get very far because every few minutes he would stop to point out some feature of nature that we had not previously noticed. It was fascinating to see how the landscape around him seemingly spoke to him. I don't believe he had been in that particular place before, but he was reading the signs all around us in the trees and plant life, the worn places on the path, explaining why the leaves from the upper reaches of the trees were smaller than those lower down. How the path at this point had come to be thanks to sheep herders more than a century before. How one could determine that a fire had broken out in this area at some time in the past and other such information gleaned simply from observation. One interesting fact that he shared with us was that the trees and bushes all around us had an underground network of connections through which they communicated important information to one another about the environment. I later linked this factoid to a Midrash on a verse in Genesis 2, the second account of Creation, that mentions that “No shrub of the field was yet on earth.” The word for “shrub” is “siach” which in a different context can mean a conversation. The Midrash takes it that way and says regarding this verse, “All of the trees, as it were, speak with one another.” How did these 5th century rabbis know?
Perhaps it was obvious to them from Psalm 19, the first of the nine additional Psalms added to the P'sukei d'zimrah section of the Shabbat morning service. There we read this beautiful image:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims His handiwork.
Day after day the word goes forth; night after night the story is told.
Soundless the speech, voiceless the talk, yet the story is echoed throughout the
world.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
As Wessel demonstrated, that while the Psalmist may simply be using metaphoric language to point out how the majestic features of creation direct us to the Creator who made them, nonetheless modern science teaches that everything in creation can in fact speak to us if we are able to decipher the message. The Psalmist's message is that our appreciation of all of nature should lead us to offer praise to God. Another medieval work often printed in the beginning of traditional siddurim is known as Perek Shirah, in which all of the elements of creation are each given a voice and a verse, mostly from Psalms, with which they supposedly offer God's praises.
Our Psalm focuses for a couple of verses now on the sun which is compared to a bridegroom coming out of his marriage chamber, joyfully running his course from one end of the heavens to the other, “warming all on earth as it passes.” This figure sums up the sense of jubilation we might feel as we too go out into the world each morning and experience the magnificence of creation. Later in the service we will sing again in the poem El Adon, in the opening blessing of the Sh'ma, of the joyful travels of the sun as he fulfills the will of God.
At this point, the Psalm takes a sharp detour leading some writers to suggest it might be a separate poem. However, most of our commentators see the next several verses simply as a second stage of our recognition of God in the world. Yes, God is indeed the Lord of Creation, and every day we offer thanks for His renewal of the elements of nature which we can appreciate anew each morning and every evening. But if the heavens can sing of God's glory based on creation, humankind can add to that appreciation by speaking of the divine revelation that we have been granted through the gift of Torah.
The Psalmist, speaking of the divine commandments, gives us six sentences of five Hebrew words each, which the Midrash on Psalms sees as reminding us of the five books of the Torah and the six orders of the Mishnah:
The Torah of God is perfect, restoring the spirit.
The testimony of God is faithful, making the simple wise.
The precepts of God are just, making the heart rejoice.
The Mitzvah of God is clear, enlightening the eyes.
The reverence for God is pure, enduring forever.
The laws of the Lord are true, altogether righteous.
All of these terms referring to God's words in the Torah, His instructions to us on how to live, the Psalmist says “more precious are they than gold...sweeter than honey...Your servant strives to keep them, to observe them brings great reward.”
Of course, the Psalmist realizes that none of us can perfectly fulfill all the words and demands of Torah and so he seeks forgiveness for errors and secret faults. He asks God to cleanse him of these sins and keep him away from willful acts of rebellion against the divine commands. “Then shall I be clear of wrongdoing, innocent of grave transgression.”
Thus in this opening Psalm we find several of the most important elements of our whole prayer service. We acknowledge all of God's creation and the bounty of the earth; we recognize the gift of Torah and our responsibility to observe God's will; and we seek pardon for those areas where we have failed, where we recognize our shortcomings as we come before God to offer our prayers on this Shabbat morning.
The final verse of Psalm 19 is very familiar to many of us since it appears at the end of every Amidah and is often used as a benediction at the close of services: “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable before You, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”
As we read this Psalm, we see ourselves as part of a great creation. We too are part of nature. We too have a song to sing, words to impart to one another. We too have been given a mission in life. We thank God for His gifts of life and learning and ask Him to help us to find our way through the forest. When we stray from the path, we look to Him to bring us back and to support our efforts to do our part in this world. If the heavens engage in praises, if the trees speak to one another, we too wish to join the conversation and through our words, our meditations, and most significantly through our deeds bring praise to the Creator of all the earth.