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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are we going backward or forward? (Rosh Hashanah 31a)

If you’ve ever wondered where the psalms recited at the close of the morning prayers – one for each day of the week – come from and why they were chosen, it’s explained in Rosh Hashanah 31a. R. Yehudah in the name of R. Akiba tell us that each of the psalms – Sunday Psalm 24; Monday Psalm 38; Tuesday Psalm 82; Wednesday Psalm 94; Thursday Psalm 81; Friday Psalm 93; and Shabbat Psalm 92 – mirrors the essential creative act of the corresponding day during the first week. Shabbat, however, is different because it is a yom she-kulo shabbat: Psalm 92 speaks to the future messianic time which will be one long shabbat.

A dissenting opinion is offered: R. Nechemiah holds that Psalm 92 also reflects the first week of creation, and recalls God’s rest on the seventh day. All the morning psalms are a rehearsal of the first week of creation. In that sense, all our days hearken back to the first days of creation.

Who is correct? R. Yehudah (in the name of R. Akiba) or R. Nechemiah? Is shabbat about the past or the future? When we keep shabbat, are we looking backward to a past paradise or forward to future redemption?

The Gemara seems to change the subject at this point, but perhaps that’s not at all the case.
With the musaf offerings on shabbat, what would [the Levites] recite? Rav Anan bar Rava sid in the name of Rav: HaZYV LaCH. Rav Chanan bar Rava said in the name of Rav: In the manner that it is divided here, so are they divided in the synagogue.
“HaZYV LaCH” is an acronym for Shirat-Moshe (the Song of Moses) in Parshat Ha’azinu, which we read this week, divided into six sections. Gemara tells us it was divided up in the same manner it was divided for aliyot for reading in synagogue and read at the time of the musaf sacrifice (the additional sacrifice made on shabbat) during the Second Temple period. Why Ha’azinu? We are not told.

Ha’azinu recalls in poetic terms Israel’s unfaithfulness to God throughout the years of the wilderness wandering. God guided them, but they went astray, following after idols. God saw and was vexed and spurned his sons and his daughters (Dt. 32:19). Really? Despite their misdeeds and disloyalty, the Lord will vindicate his people and take revenge for his servants when God sees that their might is gone and neither bond nor free is left (Dt. 32:36). The shirah ends on this note:
O nations, acclaim God’s people!
For God will avenge the blood of God’s servants,
Wreak vengeance on God’s foes,
And cleanse the land of God’s people.
The message we are left with is that when all is said and done – even after Israel’s perfidy and betrayal – God will vindicate, defend, and avenge Israel against her enemies. God is wholly on Israel’s side, and redemption is ultimately assured.

Gemara continues:
At minchah on shabbat, what did [the Levites] recite? R. Yochanan said: Az yashir [Exodus 15:1-10] and Mi chamocha [Exodus 15:11-18] and Az yashir [Numbers 21:17-20].
When the afternoon offering is made, the first two of the three accompanying passages are the first and second halves of Shirat HaYam, the song of redemption realized that the Israelites sang at the shores of the Reed Sea. The third is a short passage from the Book of Numbers. The Israelites have been suffering from thirst and God provides a well in the wilderness.

Musaf, then, is accompanied by Ha’azinu’s promise of God’s vindication. Minchah, which closes out shabbat, is accompanied by passages that evoke a memory of redemption realized. We look back in order to see the way forward.

I have often pondered Jews whose only connection to Judaism is the past or the future. There are those who come to shul only on the High Holy Days and perhaps attend a Pesach seder, but no more, and they say they check in twice yearly because of a parent or grandparent, or Jewish history, or the Holocaust. It’s all about the past. There are also those whose connection to Judaism is solely in terms of social justice: their brand of being Jewish is to work toward causes they feel mirror Jewish values. I respect both reasons, but neither alone bespeak a full Jewish life to me. Jewish life is lived in the present – in the here and now, day in and day out, with other Jews, with Torah, with God. I think Gemara is pointing us in the right direction: shabbat is not wholly about the past (God’s rest on the seventh day) nor wholly about the future (yom she-kulo shabbat) – but both are crucially necessary to live a full Jewish life in the present. We look back in order to see the way forward and thereby follow the path now.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

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