Psalms II: The Divine Protector
What is God?
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These two Psalms that we have selected share a common theme, which is why they frequently come together. These are Psalms 121 and 130. They don’t sound all that holy when they are labeled as numbers so we shall not refer to them by their numbers. The first we shall call ‘I lift my eyes’ and the second ‘From the depths’, for reasons that will become clear shortly. These are short Psalms, each only 8 verses long. Yet they both cut right to the core of the Jewish definition of prayer. A good argument could be made that the origins of Jewish prayer lie with Psalms like this, perhaps even with these two Psalms. We will never know, but it makes for an interesting possibility.
‘A song of ascents: I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where does my help come from? My help comes Hashem, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved, your Protector will not slumber. Behold, the Guardian of Israel does not slumber or sleep. Hashem is your Protector, Hashem is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not hurt you by day or the moon by night. Hashem will protect you from all evil; He will protect your life/soul. Hashem will protect your comings and goings from now and forever’ (Psalms 121).
‘A song of ascents: From the depths I called out to you, Hashem. Lord, listen to my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If You, God, focus on iniquities, Lord who can stand? For with You is forgiveness in order that You be feared. I have hoped for Hashem, my soul has hoped, and I await Your word. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen wait for the morning, yes more than the watchmen wait for the morning. Israel should hope in Hashem, for with Hashem is kindness and much redemption. He will redeem Israel from all of its iniquities’ (Psalms 130).
They are simple expressions of prayer. There are examples of Jewish prayer from future centuries that make these two Psalms seem downright primitive. But somehow they hit home, zeroing right in on what it truly means to pray. What is their magic formula?
For starters, there is no magic formula. This alone is important. Despite what occasionally happened in the course of the next 2,500 years, Jewish prayer was really never anything more than simple words expressing the human desire for the help and the longing for God, and the human need to praise and thank God for everything. If there is anything magical about this, it is the fact that it is simple and it works. There is no indication that prayer as we know it originated with Judaism or with the Bible. For all we know, prayer was already alive and kicking long before Ezra and the early Scribes, before David, before Moshe, and perhaps before Abraham. Psalms like these played a pivotal role in establishing what the course of Jewish prayer would become.
What is a ‘song of ascents? Why does ‘I lift my eyes’ begin with a question and not a statement declaring where help comes from? Why is the source of help the ‘Maker of the heavens and the earth’ and not some other more personal aspect of God? What does it mean to cry out to Hashem ‘from the depths’? Why would iniquities stand in the way of God listening to prayer? What are all these expressions of hope and awaiting – what is the Psalmist waiting for?
With these questions on these particular Psalms we have to ask the general question of what prayer really is. What is its purpose? What is it trying to achieve? How did Jewish prayer develop from these simple Psalms into the multi-faceted form of worship of the Jewish religion that it ultimately became? Finally what is the image of God that lies at the core of these Psalms and of Jewish prayer itself?
The Psalms are the essence of prayer. The purpose of prayer as we shall explore in specific essays in the next four sections, is to interact with God. There are two primary modes for this interaction – the acceptance mode of praise and gratitude, and the request mode of needs and desires. While this may sound like a simple explanation of what is such a complex and varied method of human spirituality and thought, it really hits the nail on the head. The goal of Jewish prayer and religious prayer in general, is to commune with one’s image of the deity through meditative thought and spoken words in order to both understand and revere that image and to appeal to it to fulfill life needs and desires.
Prayer had to have a personal element. It could not be done by proxy. This is where the Psalms fit in. They enabled each individual to voice their own worship to God. It didn’t need to be done in the premises of the temple. It didn’t even need a temple to be standing.
When the Jews lost their temple, the sacrifices and the priestly functions largely disappeared. Personal prayer, which evolved into communal prayer, became the central feature of Jewish worship. The Psalms were likely there from the beginning. They were probably the first universal expressions of the Jewish method of communing with God. We don’t know the exact sequence of events. Perhaps the Psalms were first. Perhaps the Shema was first. Perhaps they merged at some point and simply became prayer. Eventually they were joined by the Amidah and scores of blessings and assorted other forms. In the end, it resulted in the Siddur, the Jewish prayer system.
‘I lift my eyes’ begins with a question, not with a statement. ‘I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where does my help come?’ This remarkable introduction zeros us in on the inquisitive nature of the human interaction with God. Ultimately, it is all a mystery. We cannot see God like we see a fire. We cannot touch God like we can touch a person or an animal. But we know that God is there. Where is God? To ask this question and to answer it, the Psalmist says ‘I lift my eyes to the mountains’. Gazing at the mountain both forces the question and it draws out the answer. When I look to the mountains I must ask myself, from where my true help springs. And in asking, I know the answer – it comes from Hashem, who made the heavens and the earth. Hashem made those mountains. Help ultimately only comes from the Maker of everything, and who is the only real security in life.
Every other source of security will falter at some point, either due to its own weakness, or because it will lose interest. Hashem never sleeps on the job. Hashem’s protection is as universal as shade from the sun. Hashem’s protection, as invisible and undetectable as it may be, is wider in scope than anything else. It protects not only against physical and social dangers, but against the spiritual dangers associated with evil. Hashem’s protection lasts forever, accompanying us wherever we go, from birth until the moment of death.
What does it mean to cry to Hashem ‘from the depths’? The Psalms are not afraid to delve into the depths of human emotion. In fact, this is their very greatness, their most penetrating beauty. They do not shirk at exposing the seedier sides of life – the anger, the arrogance, the lust, frustration – that are really essential parts of life itself. Sadness and despair permeate the Psalms, even in the middle of praise and joy. These are the depths. They are the depths that the soul can reach, that the soul inevitably will reach, as it journeys through life. It is not only from the lofty heights, but also from the murky depths, that a human being cries out to Hashem.
It is in submerging to these depths that we are forced to confront our own fallibility. We have shortcomings. We can try to change them, to repent, etc., but the bottom line is that there will always be more shortcomings. These are the iniquities. They are the crooked side of our personalities. They do get in the way of our relationship with God. That is an unavoidable fact of spiritual life. We all sense it and there is no point in denying it. However, what we can do is to ask Hashem to work around them in meeting us halfway. If the shortcomings are an impenetrable obstacle, who can possibly stand? But Hashem can overlook them in interacting with us, even as Hashem remembers them in bigger picture. With such a relationship, a relationship of us knowing that we have problems and having to beg Hashem to temporarily overlook those problems, all we can really do is hope. We wait and we hope. We wait and we hope for some form of redemption, some sense of ultimate worth that makes us feel that our lives have mattered.
Perceiving the Image
We all need to pray. It is possible that many will deny that need, or ignore it. It is likely that many will not want to associate that need with a deity, such as the monotheistic God of Judaism. They might want to pray to their own inner self, or some ‘spirit’, or the nothingness that permeates all of reality, or the universal sense of meaning that we are all aware of. It really doesn’t matter all that much to the basic fact that we all need to pray. It is a need that has probably been around in one form or another since human beings first became aware that they were human and that they were beings. It is an essential part of conscious existence.
These Psalms do more than simply lay out the core structure of Jewish prayer. They also help shape the image of God that emerges from those prayers. That image is formed when we ask the question after looking to the mountains. It is formed when we sink to the depths and cry out in desperation. It is formed when we understand that our only true security in this insecure world comes from the Maker of the heavens and the earth. It is formed when we hope and wait for redemption.
It is an image of a God who is there, waiting for us as we wait for Him. It is an image of a God who is willing to go down into those depths and help us climb out. It is an image of something stronger than the mountains, more enduring than the heavens, more solid than the earth. This is the image of the God of prayer. The God who helps when we need help, who gives security when we need security, who is always ready to listen, who accompanies us not matter how low we descend, and who waits for our cries to grant us some sense of redemption. Perhaps the most vivid image in all of this is that of the Protector. We may think of a protector as the nighttime security guard who eagerly awaits the dawn so he can catch some sleep. But God is the Protector who never sleeps. The Protector never slumbers, even when we do. This is the image of the divine Protector, always there to protect, always there to hear the cry for help, always willing to do the job no matter how unworthy those who need protection may be. We look to the mountains for help, and we rest knowing that we are always being protected.
This is a beautiful and reassuring image that we all can relate to. No matter how self-assured we may be, we all need a little protection from outside. Is this a sign of strength or of weakness?
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