Thoughts on Psalm 34
Many of our sages throughout the centuries are known to us not so much by their proper names, but by the titles of their most important works. Rabbis speak of the Taz and the Shach, for example. These are abbreviations for commentaries on the major law code the Shulchan Aruch, known as the Turei Zahav and the Siftei Kohen, by Rabbi David Halevi Segal and Rabbi Shabtai Hakohen respectively. Their commentaries are known, but most people, even legal scholars familiar with the commentaries, would need to look up their actual names as I just did. They are always the Taz and the Shach.
Someone whose name is somewhat better known as well as his nom de plume is the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Meir Hakohen Kagan (1838 -1933). Though he wrote many books including an authoritative commentary on the first section of the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishneh Berurah, he is known universally by the title of his first published work on the importance of guarding our speech, being careful with the words that come out of our mouths. He took the title, Chofetz Chaim, from a significant section of Psalm 34, one of the additional Psalms we recite as part of P'sukei d'zimrah on Shabbat and festivals. There we read, “Come children, listen to me, I will teach you to revere the Lord. Which of you desires life (mi ha-ish haChafetz Chaim), loves long years discovering goodness? Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies. Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” The Psalmist lays out some basic guidelines for the God-fearing individual, the religious Jew, who desires life. First, be careful how you use speech, don't speak evil even when it is true and certainly do not tell lies. Second, in all your actions run from evil, but that is not sufficient, you must also do good. Third, he calls on us to promote harmony and peace among all people. This is the central teaching of this Psalm which has no apparent connection with Shabbat, for this is good advice every day.
The Psalm is identified as “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Avimelech who forced him to flee.” The reference is to a story in I Samuel, chapter 21, where David is fleeing the wrath of King Saul and crosses into Philistine territory, taking refuge in the land of the enemy, King Achish of Gath, known by the generic title of Philistine rulers as Avimelech, accordiing to some commentators. David realized that he could be captured and betrayed, so he feigned madness and ultimately was allowed to go free, to be sent away, taken for a mad beggar. Though the Midrash on Psalms, understanding the Book of Psalms as actually authored by David, sees the Psalm as reflecting these actual events. Most scholars view this collection of poems as originating over the course of centuries by a number of authors and consider the approach of the Midrash as a bit of a stretch.
This poem is one of a number of alphabetical acrostics in the book of Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible. The best known acrostic in our prayerbook is perhaps Psalm 145 which makes up most of Ashrei. Just as Psalm 145 is missing a letter, nun, from its acrostic, so here too, in Psalm 34, there is no verse for the letter vav, unless we divide the verse for hay into two mini-verses.
The Psalmist begins with words of praise, 'I bless the Lord at all times, praise of God is ever on my lips. I exult in the Lord, O humble people, listen and rejoice.” The third verse is familiar to us from the Torah service when the reader holding the Torah, turns toward the ark and calls on the congregation, “Gadlu ladonay iti, glorify the Lord with me and let us together acclaim God's name.” The Psalmist goes to speak of the troubles he has faced in life, but how he has found salvation from God who has answered him in time of trouble. He feels secure for “the angel of the Lord encamps round those who revere God's name and protects them.”
The next verse begins with the word “Ta'amu” which some translate as “judge” or “discern” while others take it to mean “Taste” as it is often used. “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy the man who finds shelter in Him.” We experience God's presence with all of our senses, so perhaps the word “taste” is not out of place. When we taste of God's bounty, we offer thanks. This verse is followed by two lines familiar from the end of the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, “Revere the Lord, holy people, for those who revere God experience no lack. Starving lions may roar, but those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good.” Unfortunately this is not always the case as we know from other places in the Bible. We do not always understand why the righteous suffer. Yet they are called upon to have faith that ultimately God will reward their goodness.
At this point the Psalmist adds his advice on how to find the good life, the verses I cited at the beginning of this essay on guarding our tongues from evil, turning away from sin and doing good, and seeking peace and pursuing it. We draw on the line about guarding our tongues from evil in the closing passage following each Amidah, “Elohai n'tzor l'shoni mei-ra, My God guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking lies.”
As the poem continues, the Psalmist contrasts God's protecting care for the righteous with the punishment to be meted out to the wicked., “erasing their memory from the earth.” “Cry out and the Lord will listen and save us from all our troubles,” says the Psalmist, “for God is close to the broken-hearted, rescuing those who are downcast.” At times when we feel low, he suggests turning to God whose presence gives us hope at times like that.
Again the poet reassures the righteous who suffer from various troubles, as did King David, “Many are the troubles the righteous suffer; but the Lord will deliver them from all of these.” God protects the righteous and crushes the evildoer. The Psalm ends with the assurance, “The Lord redeems the lives of those who serve God; those who turn to God for support shall not be found blameworthy.”
If we assume, as do many of the early commentators, that these words were an expression of David's faith when his quick wits saved him from the Philistines by deciding to feign madness, we are given a picture of a man of faith. If you recall after his early triumphs over the Philistines, David is given the hand of the king's daughter, Michal. However, in spite of or, perhaps, because of his success, King Saul becomes insanely jealous and tries to kill his son-in-law. David attributes his escape from this danger and from other troubles to God's protecting care. Though David does not understand why he is suffering, he feels certain that eventually God will deliver him from all evil. The righteous person can only offer his praise to God and invite others to join him in extolling the Almighty.
As we gather to worship each Shabbat morning, we look back on the week just past and, though we may have experienced various troubles and difficulties, we come together in the synagogue to praise God and to seek divine help and protection in the week ahead. Our task is to strive to lead good decent lives and put our hope in God to ultimately extricate us from life's sorrows. So, in this section of P'sukei d'zimrah, the introduction to our Sabbath worship, filled with God's praises, we begin, “Avarcha Adonay b'chol eit, I bless the Lord at all times, praise of God is ever on my lips.”