Thoughts on the Purim Psalm (Psalm 22)
There is a custom among Sephardic Jews to recite a Psalm to introduce ma'ariv, the evening service. There are special Psalms designated for Shabbat and holidays and also for Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah and Purim. For Purim, the Psalm chosen is Psalm 22. It was also customary in Sephardic congregations and also in some Ashkenazic congregations, particularly those who follow the traditions of the Vilna Gaon, to make this Psalm the Psalm of the day on Purim, or at least to add it to the regular Psalm of the day. These customs which appear in some texts found in the Cairo Genizah from the latter part of the first millennium, as well as in a number of the early collections of Jewish law from the 13th and 14th centuries build on connections both in the Talmud and in the Midrash on Psalms of this poem to the holiday of Purim.
The Psalms we have examined over the past year or so that have entered into our prayerbook seem to be for the most part joyous hymns of praise to the Almighty. This one, by contrast, is a bitter complaint before God, at least in its opening section and it seems, at first glance, to be very inappropriate for such a joyous occasion as Purim, a time of feasting and drinking and celebration. This Psalm has been associated by the Church with Jesus's Passion, the narrative of his crucifixion. Its opening line appears somewhat modified in the mouth of Jesus as he suffers on the cross, “Eli Eli, my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Other images in the Psalm have been picked up in the Gospel of Mark as he describes the scene among the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, casting lots and dividing Jesus's garments among them. Our tradition, of course, does not make these connections to events hundreds of years after the time of the Psalmist. That does not stop us, however, from reading into it our own associations with a very different story, the story of Esther in the Megillah.
The heading on this Psalm is Lamnatzeach al ayelet hashachar, mizmor l'David. We are not quite certain how to understand this heading. Often these headings on the Psalms are an indication of musical settings or other instructions to the choir leader among the Levites. The word “lamnatzeach” refers to the director or conductor and the last part “mizmor l'David” is familiar as a Psalm of David, whether written by him, for him, or in the style of his poetry, is not clear. The new element here is “ayelet hashachar.” Literally this means “the doe of the dawn” and is assumed to be a reference to some kind of melody no longer known to us.
However, rabbinic commentary associates this ayalah, this doe, with Queen Esther. In the Talmud (Yoma 29a), Rabbi Zera and Rabbi Asi each attempt to explain this terminology with reference to Esther. Rabbi Zera describes the desirability of a doe to her mate as comparable to the attachment of King Ahasuerus to Queen Esther. While Rabbi Asi compares her story to the dawn, “to tell you that just as the dawn is the end of the whole night, so is the story of Esther the end of all miracles.” I must admit that these explanations do not seem to clarify matters very much.
Rather, the discussion in the tractate of Megillah makes a stronger case for associating this Psalm with the Purim story. There it is seen as reflecting Esther's great anxiety as she prepares to appear before the king unbidden to seek the salvation of her people. The verse in the Megillah states, “And she stood in the inner court of the king's house.” One can feel the hesitation, the uncertainty of the moment. Rabbi Levi comments on this verse, “When she reached the chamber of the idols, the Shechinah (the divine presence) left her. She said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Do You perchance punish the inadvertent offense like the presumptuous one, or one done under compulsion like one done willingly.” In other words, Rabbi Levi imagines Esther at this moment of uncertainty, going forward to an unknown fate and wondering if she was worthy of God's protection or had she lost that right because she was, as she saw herself perhaps viewed by others as a sinner, forced by circumstances to share the bed of this wicked king. Passing through a place of idolatry, she senses the departure of God's presence and is filled with fear. Has God abandoned her or will He protect her from this perilous encounter. Thus Rabbi Levi puts the words of this Psalm into Esther's mouth.
As we look at the Psalm, however, only portions of it seem to fit the story, other parts do not work as well. In addition to these references in the Talmud to the book of Esther and one more there that quotes a verse from our Psalm to prove that the Megillah should be read both morning and evening, the Midrash on Psalms gives a detailed commentary associating most of this Psalm with the book of Esther. This is a very lengthy discussion in the Midrash which takes many verses from Psalm 22 and elsewhere to expound upon our story.
The author of the Midrash imagines the reflections of Esther during the three days of fasting prior to her appearance before the king and expresses her doubts about her own worthiness. She also argues with God, as it were, to convince Him that Haman's plan to destroy the Jews is much worse than that of Pharaoh and therefore God should respond to her and her people as she quotes our Psalm, “But You are holy, O You that are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” God in His holiness should intervene to save her people.
Rabbi Elchanan Samet, discussing this Psalm and its connection to Purim, suggests that it is not the plea of an individual alone, but of the entire community of Israel. Parts are clearly relating personal experiences of an individual, but other sections reflect the tribulations of the entire people. While we tend to see Purim as a fun-filled holiday based on a fictional narrative, it is set in a real historical setting, a time of uncertainty and anxiety for the Jewish people. In the story, Haman may be responding to a personal slight by Mordecai, but his response comes out of a background of hatred for an entire people. That people is represented in the Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (or us)?”
In Richard Levy's translation, the Psalmist continues, “Such a long way between my desolate words and my deliverance! My God, I cry out all day – and You don't respond; all night – and I don't get respite. But You are holy, sitting atop the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted, our mothers trusted, and You rescued them! To you they cried, and they escaped; in You they trusted, and were not ashamed.”
The speaker describes him or herself as “a worm, not human, a reproach of humanity, despised by the people.” Various troubles are described and terrible sufferings enumerated through the succeeding verses. But then again, there is a call out to God, “And You, Adonai, don't stand far away! My leader, hurry to my aid! Deliver my life from the sword – my only life – from the power of this dog. Rescue me from the maw of the lion – from the horns of the wild oxen You have answered me.”
At this point, the Psalmist offers praise to God who has finally responded in this time of need. “Let me tell the story of Your name to my family – in the midst of the community I will sing Your praise! You who revere Adonai, sing praise to God!...For the Holy One has not despised the afflicted in their affliction, has not treated them as detestable nor hidden the Face from them” That last phrase resonates with me as we speak of God's hidden face in the book of Esther where His name never appears, yet His presence is very much felt. Some connect our wearing of masks on this holiday to that hidden face. The rabbis ask where is Esther to be found in the Torah? They answer, in the verse in Deuteronomy, “Haster Astir et panay.” “I will certainly hide My face.” Astir has the same letters as Esther in Hebrew. The Psalmist continues, “And when they cried for help, God hearkened.”
The concluding verses of Psalm 22, continue to offer praise to God, “Let the humble afflicted eat their fill, let those who seek Adonai sing praise, and may your hearts pulse with life forever. Let all the families of nations kneel before You – for sovereignty belongs to Adonai who rules over the nations.” As we come to the final verse, we read, “God's story will be told for generations. They will come forth and tell tales of Your justice; to a people still unborn, they will sing what You have done!”
While the narrative of the Megillah may not be historical, its story is only too true. It is the story of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, the uncertainty and anxiety that we too often have faced throughout history, the oppressors and persecutors who have afflicted our lives and have attempted to bring an end to Jewish history. Our people have suffered and called out to God for help and often may have felt abandoned and without hope. Too often God's face has been hidden. But ultimately God has come to our rescue and our people have survived and prospered and continue to this day. So this Psalm is our Psalm. It reflects our history and our anguish as well as our hope and our feelings of gratitude to the Almighty as we celebrate this holiday of Purim.
They say that Jewish holidays revolve around a common theme, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat.” And so on Purim, we celebrate Jewish survival and give thanks to God, and rejoice as the Megillah suggests, with mishteh v'simcha, feasting and joy, sending of gifts to one another, mishloach manot, and providing gifts for the poor, matanot la-evyonim. The holiday is a fun-filled festival, but behind the joy are tears of memory as we recall our difficult history, our struggle to survive and ultimately our faith in God.