“Mizmor Shir le-Yom ha-Shabbat,” the Song for the Shabbat (Psalm 92), is perhaps one of the most familiar Psalms, repeated three times in the Shabbat liturgy. Notwithstanding its declared purpose in the opening line, the actual contents apparently have nothing to do with the classic themes of Shabbat at all but instead focus on the idea of eventual Divine reward for the righteous and reckoning for the wicked. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, the 20th-century Rosh Yeshiva and Torah commentator, wove together a number of ancient Midrashic themes to propose a surprising and beautiful resolution to this question.
There is an ancient tradition that the Jews in Egypt used to gather on Shabbat when they had been exempted from work. (Interestingly, Cecil B. DeMille references this tradition in his classic film “The Ten Commandments,” where he puts the following words in the mouth of a young Ramses: “He gives them the priests’ grain and one day in seven to rest. They call it ‘The Day of Moses.’”) The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:18) teaches that on those Shabbat days, the Jews would study scrolls that they possessed that strengthened them to survive another week of bondage.
Rabbi Kaminetsky suggests, based on a comment of Rashi (Bava Batra 14b) who ascribes the composition of Psalm 92 to Moshe himself, that the “Psalm for the Shabbat Day” is therefore not a Psalm about Shabbat, but rather one of those texts that Jews in Egypt would delve into on Shabbat during the years of slavery. Imagine, then, the power of these lines from the Psalm to Jews struggling to believe against an existence that seemed permeated with injustice:
“When the wicked spring up as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they may be destroyed forever. But Thou, Hashem, art on high forevermore. For, lo, Thine enemies, O LORD, for, lo, Thine enemies shall perish: All the workers of iniquity shall be Hashem. … Mine eye also hath gazed on them that lie in wait for me, mine ears have heard my desire of the evil-doers that rise up against me.”
Rabbi Kaminetsky posits that another one of these texts was the Book of Job, which one opinion the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) also ascribes to Moshe. Job is the classic biblical work that wrestles with a world that feels fundamentally unfair, and concludes that it is fundamentally impossible for mortals to grasp the algorithms by which Hashem runs His universe. Kaminetsky speculates that before the dramatic events of the Exodus, Moshe composed these works that grappled with the existential theological questions critical for living a life of faith in a world seemingly governed by moral chaos.
Job and Psalm 92 bear complementary messages. Job affirms the validity of our experiences and questions, the vertigo that has accompanied so much of Jewish history. At the same time, Psalm 92 reinforces the idea that there will be an ultimate reckoning, that there is a plan, albeit inscrutable, and that eventually God’s world will culminate in a revelation of His justice that will bring clarity to the arc of history.
There is something profoundly moving about contemplating the clandestine gathering of our ancestors in Egypt, poring over these texts to cultivate a life of faith in the most challenging of circumstances. Throughout the generations, the pattern of using Shabbat as an island in time to find the lessons in Torah that would help us contend with the trials of life has been a hallmark of the Jewish experience. In a moment when American Jews find ourselves contending with a resurgence of anti-Semitism, we owe it to ourselves to use the tools of Shabbat and Torah to help us find timeless meaning at the very time that we encounter the greatest anxiety and confusion. pjc
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.