Thoughts on Psalm 104 for Rosh Chodesh
Borchi nafshi et Adonay! Bless the Lord, O my soul! This phrase appears at the beginning of Psalm 104 and recurs again at the end. Reaching inward to the deepest point within, the Psalmist is moved to a kind of ecstasy as he views all of creation in this magnificent tribute to God. Several of the early halachic law codes mention the custom, apparently begun in Spain, of reciting this Psalm on the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, after the regular Psalm of the Day at the conclusion of the morning service. A few sages recommend saying it in place of the daily Psalm, but most add it as an additional reading after the daily Psalm which the Levites would recite each day in the Temple.
Ostensibly, the Psalm was chosen because of the verse “Asah yareach lamoadim,” “He made the moon for the appointed seasons.” On the day we mark the sighting of the new moon and begin a new month, we praise God among whose creations is this heavenly body which helps us mark the passing of time each month through its distinctive phases. There are a few authorities who believe that this Psalm was actually the official Psalm recited in the Temple in ancient times each month on Rosh Chodesh. The problem is that there is no proof that this was the case. In fact, there seem to be other possible candidates for that role including Psalm 96 which is now part of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy.
Psalm 104 is rather lengthy, with 35 verses, the poet takes a leisurely survey of all of creation. As we have seen in several other Psalms, he begins on high, introducing God Himself. “Lord, my God You are very great. Grandeur and glory You don. Wrapped in light like a cloak, stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.” (I am using Robert Alter's translation for the most part.) We recall that God began Creation with the formation of light and here, He wraps Himself in that aura. Alter points to the succession of participles that mark these opening verses, all connected to God who was mentioned specifically only in the opening verses. “Setting beams for His lofts in the waters, making His chariot in the clouds, going on the wings of the wind. Making His messengers the winds, His ministers, glowing fire.” God surveys all from on high riding upon the clouds.
From the heavens we descend to earth. “He founded earth on its solid base, not to be shaken forevermore. With the deep You covered it like a garment – over mountains the waters stood. From Your blast they fled, from the sound of Your thunder they scattered. They went up the mountains, went down the valleys, to the place that You founded for them. A border You fixed so they could not cross, so they could not come back to cover the earth.” The poet sets out the physical background for the various element of creation, all made at God's word and under God's laws, limited as He decreed.
As He continues to speak of the water on earth, we are gradually introduced to the various creatures who inhabit this planet. “You let loose the springs in freshets, among the mountains they go. They water all beasts of the field, the wild asses slake their thirst. Above them the fowl of the heavens dwell, from among the foliage they send forth their voice.” As we continue, we see that all of the natural beauty is for a purpose and that God is more than simply a creator, He tends all of creation, providing the needs of all creatures and seeing that they each have an appropriate place in the panoply of nature. This God is now simply a “First Cause,” who set the earth in motion and then let it run its course. He is intimately involved in every aspect of the world and supervises the smallest details.
“He waters mountains from His lofts, from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated. He makes the hay sprout for cattle, grass for the labor of humankind to bring forth bread from the earth.” This is the origin of the blessing over bread, hamotzi, as noted in my recent piece on the blessings over food. Likewise we find the mention of wine as well, “And wine that gladdens the heart of man to make faces shine brighter than oil, and bread that sustains the heart of man.” Man is just one more creature among all of creation. He appears after the cattle and then the poet goes on to talk about trees, birds, and other creatures. In this Psalm, while our uniqueness is noted, we are clearly to feel our place in the entirety of creation. “The trees of the Lord drink their fill, the Lebanon cedars He planted, where the birds make their nest, the stork whose home is the cypresses, the high mountains for the gazelles, the crags for badgers.” So this beautiful world is not just for our viewing entertainment, but each element has its distinct importance, its role in harboring creatures big and small.
We head back now into the heavens, the verse which the rabbis grasped onto to link this Psalm with Rosh Chodesh, “He made the moon for the fixed seasons; the sun – He appointed its setting. You bring down darkness and it turns to night in which all beasts of the forest stir.” Heavenly bodies are beautiful but they also are functional and mark the passage of each day, each month, and every year.
Many of the commentators note the similarity between this poem of nature and the divine voice heard out of the whirlwind toward the end of the Job narrative, describing the unfathomable elements of nature. Here too we see God's plan at work. There are night creatures and day creatures, each has its proper place in the order of the world. “The lions roar for prey, seeking from God their food. When the sun comes up, they head home, and in their dens they lie down. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.” We are seen as the day shift and the lions are in charge at night.
“How many are Your deeds, O Lord (a verse utilized in the first blessing of the Sh'ma – Mah rabu ma'asecha, Adonay), all of them You do in wisdom. All the earth is filled with Your riches.” It is interesting, however, that human creation is also included in the wonders of the world, for we were created to be partners in that activity. So we read of the sea: “This sea great and wide, where creatures beyond number stir, the little beasts and the large. There the ships go, this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.” Leviathan can be a term for large sea creatures like the whales or if you like an element of mythology included in the poem. It can be a great, mythical creature of the sea, destined in the midrash to serve as dinner for the righteous at the end of days and whose skin will cover a future sukkah. To God, such a massive creature is a mere plaything.
We go on to speak of the dependence of all creatures on the Almighty. “All of them look to You to give them their food in its season. When You give them, they gather it in, when You open Your hand, they are sated with good. When You hide Your face, they panic, You withdraw their breath and they perish, and to the dust they return.” Life is so fragile and we are so dependent on God's grace. “When You send forth Your breath they are created and You renew the face of the earth.”
Now we come to our closing verses of praise, “May the Lord's glory be forever (this phrase appears in the passage just before Ashrei in P'sukei D'zimrah, Y'hi k'vod Adonay l'olam), may the Lord rejoice in His works, who but looks down to earth and it trembles, but touches the mountains – they smoke.”
Back in Seminary days, the last three verses were set to a lively song that we often sang at the Shabbat dinner table “Ashira ladonay b'chayay- yay- yay, azamra lelohai b'odi -i-i-i.” “Let me sing to the Lord while I live, let me hymn to my God while I breathe. Let my speech be sweet unto Him, as for me, I rejoice in the Lord.”
The final verse begins on a rather jarring note, “Yitamu chataim min ha-aretz ureshaim od einam” “Let offenders (sinners) vanish from earth and the wicked be no more.” Where did they come from all of a sudden into this pastoral scene? Perhaps it is a reminder that we must be ever vigilant to protect this beautiful world and be concerned about those who might do things that would destroy the environment.
This verse figures in a famous Talmudic story of Rabbi Meir and his brilliant wife, Beruriah. Rabbi Meir was troubled by a group of ruffians in his neighborhood, we're told, and was pronouncing a curse upon them. His wife intervened and, citing this verse, read the word chata-im not as sinners, but as sins. Let sins vanish from the earth. She urged her husband to pray for the end of sinning, rather than the destruction of the sinners, and then, as the verse states, they will no longer be wicked.
We too pray for a world cleansed of sin and each month we dedicate our efforts to returning the world to its pristine beauty at the time of Creation. As the Psalmist concludes, “Borchi nafshi et Adonay, Halleluyah.” “Praise the Lord, O my soul, Halleluyah!”