Shiur #56: Psalm 107 - "Give Thanks To The Lord, For He Is Good, For His Loving-Kindness Is Forever" (Part III)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

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by Rav Elchanan Samet

 

 

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Lecture 56: Psalm 107 - "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is Good, for His loving-kindness is forever" (PART III)

 

 

V. A PSALM DISCUSSING THE FUTURE REDEMPTION OF ISRAEL

 

            Let us now move on to those commentators who understand our psalms as discussing the future redemption of Israel.

 

1. Meiri

 

            R. Menachem Meiri opens his commentary to our psalm with the following short introduction:

 

It seems to me that this psalm was said by way of prophecy regarding the redemption from this lengthy exile in which we suffer great afflictions. He mentions in it four types of affliction: the first – being taken into captivity to distant lands (based on Yeshayahu 33:17), always, by way of a wilderness and a desolate land, suffering the pains of hunger and thirst; the second – being caught in the pits of captivity (based on Eikha 4:20); third – being afflicted with disease; and fourth – being taken into captivity to distant lands, by way of the sea and suffering the distress of the sea and its waves; most of the afflictions are included in these. What this means is that they suffer all kinds of afflictions, and when God will redeem them, they will be saved from all this and thank God and proclaim "His wondrous works to the children of man." They will return to their desolate land and establish cities of habitation. They will enjoy all kinds of success, and the world will be filled with knowledge, when they perfect themselves with all kinds of perfection, as it says at the end of his words, "and all the iniquity shuts its mouth" (v. 42) – which alludes to perfection of character traits. And similarly, "and let them contemplate the acts of the loving-kindness of the Lord" (v. 43) – which alludes to the perfection of virtues. And the proof to this explanation is what it says: "Whom He redeemed… and whom He has gathered from the lands," even though it is possible to explain this otherwise.[1]

Someone else [see the Radak, cited above] explained that the psalm's intention is to awaken people so that they should know that any afflictions reaching them are punishments, God's judgments for his sin or sins. And he should stir himself to repent and pray before God, may He be exalted, that He should remove that punishment from him. And when that happens, he should thank Him, who in His loving-kindness and mercy saved him, and attribute everything that happened to him as coming from Him, may He be exalted, and not by chance. This is all included in our explanation.[2]

 

            This explanation was also not spared R. Yosef Ya'avetz's rod of criticism:

 

I see nothing in the hand of this sage. For in all these events [described in the four stanzas of the psalm] we are obligated to give thanks, whether in exile [even before the people are redeemed and returned to their land] or in our land. Why then was it necessary to mix these afflictions with the gathering of the exiles? For each of these afflictions is enough in its time. And when we leave the exile and thank God, blessed be He, for having gathered us from all the lands, it will not be necessary to recite the "ha-gomel" blessing retroactively for all the afflictions that happened to us in our exile.

 

2. Seforno

 

            R. Ovadya Seforno writes in his introduction to our psalm as follows:

 

The psalmist formulated this psalm as if it were being recited by those who were gathered in from the exile, who witnessed the war of Gog and Magog and the deliverance from it. He says that those redeemed will then say [what is stated in our psalm], for four classes of people must give thanks, as is explained in our psalm, and all of them happened to Israel, and for all of them they will give thanks at the time of the ingathering of the exiles, those who are redeemed from subjugation to [foreign] authorities, for in the war of Gog and Magog… from which they will be delivered…

 

The Seforno's explanation is not subject to R. Yosef Ya'avetz's criticism of the Meiri's explanation. According to the Seforno, the troubles described in the psalm will fall upon Israel at the time that they will be gathered in to their land – the time of their redemption, in the framework of the war of Gog and Magog – the future war about which Yechezkel prophesied (in chapters 38-39) and which was described by other prophets as well.

 

            But this is the very problem, for among all the many afflictions described in our psalm from which Israel will be saved, there is no mention of deliverance from war, which would have been most appropriate were the psalm dealing with the war of Gog and Magog![3]

 

VI. THE EXPLANATION OF R. YOSEF BEN NACHMIAS

 

            We are still in the camp of commentators who understand our psalm as a psalm celebrating Israel's redemption, but owing to the importance of the explanation that follows, we have set aside a separate section in our study for it and for the discussion about it.

 

            R. Yosef ben Nachmias was a student of the Rosh, who lived in Toledo during the middle of the fourteenth century.[4] He wrote commentaries to several biblical books,[5] and also to Pirkei Avot and the piyyut "Ata konanta," which deals with the sacrificial service on Yom Kippur.[6] His commentary to the book of Tehillim has not survived, and we only know of its existence from citations from it found in other works of his.

 

            R. Yosef Ya'avetz, who lived about a hundred and fifty years after him and was familiar with his commentary to the book of Tehillim, mentions R. Yosef's explanation of our psalm:

 

And Nachmias wrote that when they leave the exile and go to Eretz Yisrael, these four things will happen to them.

 

            According to this, the four afflictions described in the first four stanzas of the psalm from which the redeemed of the Lord were redeemed, are not afflictions suffered in the lands of Israel's exile (as understood by the Meiri), nor are they afflictions suffered during the war of Gog and Magog (as is implied by the Seforno), but rather they are elements of the process of the ingathering of exiles itself!

 

            R. Yosef Ya'avetz is also not sparing in his criticism of this explanation:

 

This is incorrect, for: "He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd keeps his flock" (Yirmiyahu 31:9); "They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for He that has mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall He guide them" (Yeshayahu 49:10).

           

That is to say, the description of the ingathering of the exiles in the prophecies of redemption in Scripture are nothing like what is stated in our psalm, according to the understanding of R. Yosef Nachmias, but rather the very opposite: God will gather up His nation and keep them as a shepherd keeps his flock, and the redeemed of the Lord will follow a straight path, unencumbered by the difficulties usually encountered by travelers. What is more, many other verses can be cited in support of R. Yosef Ya'avetz's argument.

 

            But are the various accounts of the ingathering of the exiles in Scripture really uniform, with no exceptions? The answer to this question is no. Already in the prophecy in the book of Yirmiyahu cited by R. Y. Ya'avetz we find:

 

Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the ends of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travails with child together; a great company shall return there. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them; I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, in which they shall not stumble. (31:7-8)

 

It is true that God will lead His people returning to their land "in a straight way, in which they shall not stumble," but what room is there for the weeping and the supplications of the ingathered? This is because those being gathered in, including "the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travails with child," started their journey to Zion with great difficulty, and this difficulty is what brings them to "come with weeping." The prophet promises that in the continuation of their journey, God will lead them along a straight path, "and I will turn their mourning to joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow" (ibid. v. 13).

 

            Our psalm, according to R. Yosef Nachmias's understanding, makes a similar promise. Following the supplications of the ingathered ("Then they cried to the Lord in their distress"), God will deliver them from their afflictions and lead them "on the straight path to go to a city of habitation."

 

            We also find in Yirmiyahu 30 that the process of the ingathering of the exiles will be difficult and painful, and accompanied by crisis. Only at the end will it be marked by peaceful and serene settlement in Eretz Yisrael:

 

…We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear, and not of peace…. (30:5)

Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is a time of trouble to Yaakov, but he shall be saved out of it. (v. 7)

For, lo, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Yaakov shall return, and shall be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid. (v. 10)

For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you… but I will correct you in due measure, and will not leave you altogether unpunished. (v. 11)

 

            The severest description of the ingathering of exiles, marked by crisis, afflictions and harsh judgment of the ingathered (or at least some of them), is found in Yechezkel 20:

 

And that which comes into your mind shall never come about, that you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.” As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with anger poured out, will I be king over you. And I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm, and with anger poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will remonstrate with you face to face… And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against Me: I will bring them out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the Land of Israel… (Yechezkel 20:32-38)

 

It is clear from these last two prophecies that even during the process of the ingathering of the exiles the principle of Divine recompense regarding the people of Israel will continue, and they, or at least some of them, will be punished for their sins before the process of returning to Eretz Yisrael is completed.

 

            The question remains how to reconcile those prophecies that describe the process of the ingathering of the exiles as a process that it all light and no shadows (and these are the majority of the prophecies dealing with the issue) with the prophecies that describe this process as one involving crises and harsh afflictions.

 

            In order to answer this question, let us examine the words of R. Chayyim ibn Attar in his commentary to the Torah, "Or Ha-Chaim," on Bamidbar 24:17. Bil'am takes up his discourse and says:

 

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not near:

There shall come a star out of Yaakov, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.

 

R. Chayyim b. Atter comments as follows:

 

"I see it, but not now, etc." The same idea in different words. And similarly, "There shall come a star out of Yaakov, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel"….

The entire prophecy was said about the messianic king. And it should be understood based on the words [of the Sages], of blessed memory (Sanhedrin 98a), who said about the verse (Yeshayahu 60:22), "I the Lord will hasten it in its time" [which is a logical contradiction: if the redemption will come in its time, it will not be hastened, and if it will be hastened, it will not come in its time, but rather before its time; and so Chazal say] – "If they merit, I will hasten it; if they do not merit, in its time," i.e., very far off… And Scripture [in the words of Bil'am] is referring to these two ends: Corresponding to "if they merit," it says: "I see it" – that is, that which I will yet say, but it is "not now," but rather at a different time, and it may be that it is not that far off… And corresponding to "in its time," it says: "I behold it," as he sees it from afar, and this it what he says: "but it is not near," for the end of "in its time" is exceedingly long owing to sins.

And it says: "There shall come a star out of Yaakov" – this is the prophecy about which it says: "I see it, etc." And the redundancy and the change in formulation is explained by what they said [in Sanhedrin, ibid.], for they said that if the redemption will come by way of the merits of Israel, it will be marvelous, and the redeemer will be revealed from heaven, with signs and wonders… Which is not the case if the redemption will come because it is the end, but Israel does not deserve it, then it will be in a different manner, about which it was said (Zekharia 9:9) that the redeemer will come as a "humble man, riding upon an ass." And this is what it says here: Corresponding to the redemption of "I will hasten it"… it says: "There shall come a star out of Yaakov" – the redeemer will appear from heaven… And corresponding to the redemption of "in its time"… it says: "And a scepter shall rise out of Israel," that is to say, a scepter will come out of Israel in the manner of those who rise up in the world in natural fashion… that a humble person will come riding upon an ass.[7]

 

We see, then, that not only is the time of the redemption (whether it will come sooner or later) dependent upon the virtues of Israel, but also the nature of the redemption can change according to the actions of Israel – whether the redemption will be a wondrous and miraculous process, or else a natural process, fraught with difficulties.

 

            It should come as no surprise, then, that Scripture provides us with different and even contradictory accounts of the ingathering of the exiles. Most of the prophecies describe the process in glowing colors, for this is surely the ideal situation. In a minority of prophecies, however, and so too in our psalm according to the understanding proposed by R. Yosef b. Nachmias, the ingathering of the exiles is described as a process filled with difficulties and crises. God will rescue His nation from them and lead them to their land, and then they will give thanks to Him for the loving-kindness that He performed for them.

 

            Of course, between the two extremes there are many intermediate possibilities. Moreover, the ingathering process can extend over several generations, and it relates to different communities and to individuals dispersed in many different countries. Therefore, the same process itself can include at one and the same time different modes of ingathering. Some of the redeemed may merit to return to Zion with joy, with everlasting happiness on their heads, while others may come with weeping and be led by God with supplications.

 

VII. WE SAW IT WITH OUR OWN EYES

 

            In the continuation of our study next week, we will try to reinforce R. Yosef b. Nechmias's understanding of our psalm. At this point, I wish merely to add the following: The question regarding the nature of the process of the ingathering of the exiles for a person living in Israel in our generation is not just an exegetical or theoretical question. Rather, it touches upon our personal lives, our own and those of our parents, and the lives of the entire Jewish People in recent generations.

 

            The return of the Jewish People to their homeland is a process that has been going on now for three or four generations, and since the establishment of the State of Israel sixty years ago, the process of the ingathering has greatly intensified and expanded. Today, about half of the Jewish People live in the State of Israel, whereas when the process began over a century ago, less than one percent of world Jewry lived in Eretz Yisrael!

 

            How did this process take place? Did it happen peacefully, on a straight road, with no obstacles, or was it perhaps filled with enormous difficulties and crises? Did the olim return to Zion with joy, with everlasting gladness on their heads, or perhaps they came to Zion with weeping and supplications? When they came, did they immediately settle in the land in peace and serenity, or were they forced to struggle and to suffer in order to make it possible for them to exist here? Did "a star come out of Yaakov," and did Israel's redemption arrive from the clouds in heaven, or perhaps "a scepter rose out of Israel" – "in the way they come in the world in natural fashion… a humble person riding upon an ass"?

 

            Every Jew who came to Israel and struggled to settle there has his own personal and familial story, but in general we can say that the process of the ingathering of the exiles and the struggle to settle the land was filled with obstacles and crises, and this is the case until this very day.

 

            We have seen with our own eyes how everything mentioned in our psalm and much more has been fulfilled in the redeemed of the Lord of our generation, when God decreed that they be gathered into Eretz Yisrael from the four corners of the earth, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. There were those who lost themselves in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, and there were those who tried to reach its shores by way of rickety boats that got caught in storms out at sea; there were those who sat in prison owing to their desire to move to Israel, and there were entire communities who were caught behind bronze and iron doors that made such a move impossible. The early pioneers who returned to the soil struggled with serious diseases and many passed through the gates of death.

 

But despite all these difficulties, millions of Jews merited to return to Zion and see blessing in their settlement there. Wilderness was turned into pools of water, and dry ground into springs of water. The hungry established in Zion a city of habitation, they sowed fields and planted vineyards which yielded fruit, and God blessed them and they multiplied greatly.

 

We are still faced with enormous difficulties in many different areas, but our psalm comes to teach us, the redeemed of the Lord, Who redeemed us from the hand of distress and gathered them from the lands, to contemplate the loving-kindness of God that reveals itself in the historic process in which we are taking part, to thank Him for His loving-kindness and wondrous works, and to whole-heartedly say:

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,

for His loving-kindness is forever.

 

(To be continued.)

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It stands to reason that the forced explanation alluded to by the Meiri is that these verses are a generalization which is broken down into details in the next four stanzas of the psalm.

[2] He means that all these principles can be learned from our psalm, even if we explain it as referring to the future redemption of the people of Israel.

[3] For precision's sake, we should add that the Seforno understands stanzas 1-4 of our psalm as referring to various events in Israel's past. Regarding stanza 1, dealing with those who lost themselves in the wilderness, he writes: "And this happened to Israel when they went out into the wilderness, for they were thirsty at Mara and hungry in the wilderness of Sin, and He, blessed be He, satisfied the thirsty soul at Mara, and the waters became sweet, and He filled the hungry soul with good in the wilderness of Sin, with quails and bread from heaven."

Regarding stanza 2, dealing with captives who were set free, he writes: "And this happened to Israel, when they went out of Egypt, which was a prison, a house of bondage."

Regarding stanza 3, dealing with sick people who recovered, he writes: "And this happened to Israel during the plague following the complaint, as it says (Bamidbar 17:6): 'You have killed the people of the Lord,' when they were healed with the incense, and the plague of the serpents, when they were healed with the bronze serpent."

Regarding stanza 4, dealing with those who go out to sea, he writes: "And this happened to Israel when they were exiled from their land, as it says (Devarim 28:68): 'And the Lord shall bring you back into Egypt with ships,’ and when they will return in the future, as it says (Yeshayahu 11:15): ‘And the Lord shall utterly destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt.’"

What he says in the introduction to his commentary to our psalm implies a different understanding, for there he writes that what is described in stanzas 1-4 are events in the war of Gog and Magog. I do not know how to reconcile these two parts of his commentary.

[4] He sat together with the sons of the Rosh on the rabbinic court of the city of Toledo.

[5] At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, R. Moshe Aryeh Bamberger first edited and published R. Yosef's commentaries to Yirmiyahu, Mishlei, and Esther. He notes in his introductions to these books that R. Yosef also wrote commentaries to the Torah, to Tehillim and to Kohelet, but these works have not survived.

[6] These were also published by R. Moshe Aryeh Bamberger. In his introduction to the commentary to Avot, he notes that R. Yosef also wrote a commentary to tractate Nedarim that has not survived. In addition to the various commentaries mentioned in this and in the previous notes, R. Yosef wrote supplications and a book dealing with astronomy in Arabic, the Hebrew translation of which is found in a manuscript.

[7] The words of R. Chayyim b. Atter are an expansion upon two adjacent statements in Sanhedrin 98a:

R. Alexandri said: R. Yehoshua b. Levi pointed out a contradiction: It is written: "In its time," and it is written: "I will hasten it." If they merit, I will hasten it; if they do not merit, in its time.

R. Alexandri said: R. Yehoshua b. Levi pointed out a contradiction: It is written: "And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven" (Daniel 7:10), and it is written: "A humble man, riding upon an ass" (Zekharia 9:9). If they merit, "with the clouds of heaven;" if they do not merit, "a humble man, riding upon an ass."

The second statement contrasts two verses that describe the appearance of the Messiah. Rashi on the Gemara (ibid.) explains that the contradiction relates to the question of whether the Messiah will appear "with the clouds of heaven," i.e., "hastily," or perhaps like "a humble man, riding upon an ass," i.e., "lethargically." Accordingly, it is essentially the same contradiction as that pointed out in the first statement, and the gemara's resolution is the very same resolution. R. Chayyim b. Attar, however, understands that the second contradiction relates to the nature of the Messiah's arrival, as we shall see below.