Tehillim - Introduction
Tehillim - The Book of Psalms
by Rav Avi Baumol
One approaches the study of Tanakh with a dual purpose. The first is to understand the literal meaning of the story or the law. Questions one might ask are: why was God testing Abraham, commanding him to sacrifice his only son? How were the sacrifices offered in the Temple, and, why were they instituted at all? What was Moses' sin, which caused God to impede Moses' life-long ambition of entering the holy land? All of these examples relate to the question of how to understand the word of God, as it is written in the Tanakh. This can be roughly translated as learning "peshat," the literal meaning of the text.
A second, equally important, goal for the biblical exegete is to ask not the objective question of what is the meaning of this verse, but a more subjective one of what does this phrase, or idea, mean to me? In other words, while the prime goal is to comprehend the word of God as it relates to Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon, the secondary level is to ask how the word of God, on the one hand, and the actions of our forefathers, on the other, relate to us — how they affect our everyday lives. One might classify this type of learning as "derash."
For example, while peshat relates to the nature of Moses' sin, derash attempts to impart lessons of man's capability — rising to become the greatest prophet, and man's limitations — the human frailty that even Moses possessed.
Sefer Tehilim (Psalms) represents perhaps the paradigm of this two-pronged approach towards exegesis. First and foremost, we concern ourselves with understanding the psalmists' words, ideas, and motivation for writing the poem. Yet, even more important, and perhaps the goal set out by the psalmists themselves, is to convey man's feelings toward his Creator, portraying them through the gamut of his emotions. When King David calls out to God in distress, we want to know the nature of his call, but even if we are unaware of it, our application of his fervent expressions towards our own, often distressful, situations is most important.
It is no surprise that many of David's songs were integrated into our liturgy: what is prayer if not the outpouring of our emotions to God, and who could better express these sentiments than King David? We, through the medium which David introduced, attempt to unlock our innermost feelings, expressing them in communion with God.
This series is an attempt to synthesize, perhaps harmonize, the temporal feelings of the great King of Israel (and the other psalmists) with the eternal emotional outpouring of each individual as he or she recites the specific psalm. Through a brief analysis of the themes, and a development of the motif in the prayer, I will aim to analyze an entire mizmor, or psalm, in each installment.
The shiur will be sent out on a biweekly basis. We will begin with a timely mizmor: number 27 ("Le-David Hashem Ori"). Rabbi Shabbetai of Raszkow, a disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov, instituted that it be recited twice daily by the Ashkenazic community from the beginning of the month of Elul until after Hoshana Rabba in Tishrei.
[Rav Baumol, a musmakh of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and holder of an M.A. in Medieval Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, taught in America prior to returning to the Yeshivat Har Etzion Kollel.]