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Thoughts on Psalm 20

Though I wrote a few paragraphs on this Psalm about a year or so ago, I did not go into much detail.  This passage is usually read very quickly as the morning minyannaires rush to complete the service and head to work in those congregations which hold daily services, so I too rushed over it then as I wrote about the major prayer that follows, the Kiddusha d’Sidra. This week, I decided to take another look at it and give it a fuller treatment.  This interest was sparked by a session at the recent Rabbinical Assembly Convention by Seminary professor, Dr. Benjamin Sommers, who shared with us an ancient text from Egypt that included some pagan prayers as well as a text in Aramaic, very similar in language to our Hebrew Psalm 20.


Though not mentioned in the Talmud, this Psalm was introduced into the daily service in Geonic times either instead of or along with the second appearance of Ashrei toward the end of the service.  Before Aleinu was added to the end of our daily prayers, Psalm 20 served to introduce the Kedushah d’Sidra, the culminating prayer of our worship which I wrote about in the same piece last year..  As I mentioned then, though we know it as Psalm 20 today, the first two Psalms in the book of Tehillim, were combined by the rabbis into one, thus making this Psalm 19 in their calculations.  Rabbi Shimon ben Abbah taught that after the first 18 Psalms, corresponding to the 18 blessings of the Amidah, it seems most appropriate to recite this Psalm which begins with the prayer, “May the Lord answer you in a time of trouble,” just as one person might say to another, “May your prayers be answered.”  Since then, however, it has become customary to recite the tachanun supplications after the Amidah.  These were originally optional prayers recited privately.  On Mondays and Thursdays and other special occasions, we have a Torah reading after Tachanun as well. Since early medieval times it became customary to recite both Ashrei and Psalm 20 prior to the Kedushah d’Sidra and in the 14th century to add Alenu as well after it, followed by the Mourners’ Kaddish.  As they say, “Jews say goodbye and never leave.”  We always manage to find just one more prayer to add on to the end of the service.  Thus Psalm 20 tends to get buried or passed over quickly among all these prayers.  So in this piece, we will stop and take a closer look.


Rabbi Richard Levy, in his commentary to the book of Psalms, “Songs Ascending,” takes that first verse not as “May the Lord answer you” but as “May Adonai respond to you on a troubled-day.”  He explains this choice of translation, by saying that “answer you” has “provoked centuries of misunderstanding of how the dialogue between God and the praying human takes place.”  Levy goes on to say, “’Answer’ implies a direct response: I ask for health and God answers ‘yes’ by giving me health, or ‘no’ and I become ill, or do not get better. But...God is not limited by human desires… The most we can ask is that God respond to us – and that we may understand what we are to learn from the response.”  Many of us have encountered people who have suffered the loss of loved ones and perhaps, in the process, have given up on God, for He failed to answer their prayers on behalf of their family members or friends.  What good is prayer, if God does not answer it?  Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his most well-known book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” tries to convey the idea that this is not God’s role.  He should not be expected to change the course of nature.  Rather, God serves to provide support for us, helping us through these difficult and trying times, whether or not there is some cure that we might think of as a miraculous intervention from on high. Perhaps God may inspire the health professionals who tend to us to greater efforts on our behalf or the researchers to find new drugs or treatments that are more effective.  But we should not expect a miraculous cure just because we said a prayer.  That’s magical thinking, not religion.


In “My People’s Prayerbook,”  Rabbi Elliot Dorff, cites the opening verses of the Psalm, “May Adonai answer you in troubled times...May He grant you what you desire and fulfill your every request.” He writes, “These petitions speak to basic human vulnerability: fears for our own safety and the will for new things.  They are at the heart of what we all most keenly desire: protection and providence.”  Dorff asks, “Why should God grant us these wishes?  The Psalmist,” he says, “never mentions our worthiness.  He alludes to the offerings brought to the Temple.”  In the absence of the Temple these past 2000 years, we haven’t brought any sacrifices. Since prayer is supposed to replace the ancient sacrifices, we hope it might be as effective.  Dorff goes on to say, “Actually the psalmist is exaggerating.  We do trust in God, but we also defend and sustain ourselves.  Indeed,” he writes, “Jewish tradition demands that we do so.”  Dorff speaks of a combination of human and divine efforts to defend a city or to heal us from illness.  “It would be wrong to sit back and wait for God to do everything, but it would be equally wrong to pretend that we can do everything for ourselves.”  The Torah teaches that it is God who gives us the power to do what are able to accomplish in this world, thus our prayers are for God’s help in facing the challenges of life and, hopefully, overcoming them.


The Psalmist speaks of the “God of Jacob” protecting us.  Jacob seems to be the patriarch who  seeks out God’s protection again and again, to help him meet the various challenges that face him in life, whether at Bet El,  as he flees his brother Esau and has the vision of the ladder with all the angels ascending and descending, or in Aram, before fleeing from Laban with his large family, or on the eve of his encounter with his brother once more, as he “wrestles with God and with man and prevails.”  After he learns that Joseph is still alive and ruling over Egypt, he again speaks with his God before leaving the land once again to go to Egypt and God offers His protection once more.  Thus it is appropriate that the Psalmist invoke the “God of Jacob” as he seeks protection from his own enemies.


He goes on to say, “May He send you help from the holy sanctuary and sustain you from the city of Zion.”  Our prayers since the time of King Solomon are directed toward Jerusalem and its holy Temple.  Even when the Temple no longer stands on Mount Moriah, we follow Solomon’s instructions and pray toward that spot expecting God to hear us on His heavenly throne.  In the book of Daniel, Daniel models that practice, kneeling before a window facing toward Jerusalem to say his daily prayers.  While the next verse speaks of sacrificial offerings, as we mentioned, our prayers take their place today.  In verse 5, which Rabbi Dorff mentioned, we add, “May He grant you what you desire and fulfill your every request.”  Some of the commentators note that the Psalm is intentionally ambiguous and while now we might well take it as speaking of our own hopes and prayers, in context, the Psalmist appears to be addressing his sovereign as he heads out to war against his enemies.  He continues by adding, “may we rejoice in your salvation” - God’s salvation of us or of our king? - “and celebrate our God’s name, May Adonai fulfill your every wish.“  This latter interpretation fits in well with the next verse, which clearly speaks of the king. “Now, I know that Adonai will save His anointed one and answer him from his holy heights.”


In biblical time, “the anointed one” was either the king or the high priest, both being initiated into office by the pouring of oil over their heads to consecrate them to the service of the Lord.  Next spring, when King Charles is officially crowned, the Archbishop of Canterbury will, no doubt anoint him with a little oil as well to follow that tradition.  For us worshipers today, about to recite the Kedushah d’Sidra that opens with the words, “Uva l’tziyon goel, “a redeemer shall come to Zion,” this Psalm seems to pave the way for that hoped for redeemer, the mashiach, the anointed one of the end of days, the Messiah, whom tradition holds will be a descendant of King David of old.


The next verse, I mentioned in my earlier piece, is my official verse that I recite at the end of each Amidah, since it begins with an alef and ends with a reish, like my Hebrew name, Eliezer.  “Eleh barechev v’eleh basusim, va-anachnu b’shem Adoani Eloheinu nazkir.” Some call on chariots and others call on horses – they depend on military means for defense, - but, as for us, we call upon the name of the Lord our God.  As Rabbi Dorff mentions, we too don’t expect miracles every day and we bolster our military might, our own horses and chariots, with support from on high.  As a tiny nation throughout history, we have often faced enemies who brought greater might against us, but in spite of this, we have sometimes, as in the Chanukah story, successfully held them off with the help of God, along with, perhaps, shrewd military strategy as well.


The Psalmist goes on to picture the victory in battle as “they, the enemy, have collapsed and fallen, but we arose and have been restored” (taking the translation of Rabbi Benjamin Segal in “A New Psalm: the Psalms as Literature.”)  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “they crumpled.”  The verb “nitodad” is variously translated as “prevail” “stood erect,” or “stand firm.”  However you choose to translate it, clearly we have a vision of complete victory by the anointed one, be it the ancient king or the future messiah over all enemies, as they collapse, and we are victorious, having called upon the name of the Lord our God.


The final verse of the Psalm also contains some ambiguity.  It reads, “Adonai hoshiah hamelech ya’aneinu b’yom koreinu.”  You may remember hearing the last phrase repeatedly on Simchat Torah during the hakafot.  The verse may be read two different ways and the commentators are divided on the correct choice.  We question where to place the comma,though the Masoretes who added the cantillation marks, the tropes, make their choice apparent. We can read this verse, “May God save the king, may He answer us on the day that we call.”  Alternatively, we can read it simply as, “May God save us.  May the King (God) answer us on the day that we call.”  The Masoretic text puts etnachta, the equivalent of a comma, after “hoshiah,” thus choosing the second reading and the King referred to in that case is the heavenly sovereign.


There is no mention of reciting this Psalm in our earliest siddur, Seder Rav Amram Gaon, from the 9th century, nor does Maimonides include it his prayerbook in the Mishneh Torah, in the 12th century. It is included in the Machzor Vitry of the school of Rashi  also from the 12th century, and in the major law code of the Arbaah Turim, in the 14th century, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher notes its absence from Maimonides’ siddur, but adds, “We are accustomed” now to recite the psalm because it contains discussion of the ultimate messianic redemption.  Abudarham, also in the 14th century says the Psalm alludes to “the end-time.”  Various commentators believe that this Psalm in speaking of “Yom Tzarah” the day of trouble, is referring to the messianic tradition of the end of days and the battle mentioned by the prophets of Gog and Magog, ending with their ultimate defeat at the hands of the Messiah.  In speaking of this preparation for the messianic coming, Psalm 20 is seen as a most appropriate introduction to the Kedushah d’Sidra with its opening words about the arrival of the expected Redeemer.


According to the Levush, Rabbi Mordecai Yaffe, 16th century,another reason for reciting this prayer is that as one heads out to work each day seeking “parnassah,” one’s livelihood, this prayer is appropriate, for King David, the purported author of Psalms, would recite this prayer on behalf of his people each day.For many then this Psalm is a source of strength as they enter the arena of the marketplace and seek to support their families each day.


Though customarily this Psalm is omitted on joyous days when we omit the Tachanun prayers of supplication, one hopes that not every day is considered a Yom Tzarah, a day full of tzures, of trouble.  We pray that with God’s help, we may face the new day joyfully and confidently, at the end of our worship, filled with hope and energy, as we go forth with our strength renewed and faith that God will provide us with His support to get us through the day ahead.


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