Friday, June 27, 2008

Guest Posting By Alice Jonsson - A Bas Noach Learning Tehillim

(Painting by Baruch Nachshon)

Recently I have begun studying Psalms with a local Rabbi. I had been looking for a way to further my Torah education by going a bit more in-depth than a beginner course. I also wanted to be able to ask lots of questions without slowing down the whole class. I want to go deep, but at the same time, I must admit I have huge gaps in my Torah knowledge and want to be able to fill those in – a bit of a contradiction. So why not arrange something that would work privately? This I recommend for anyone.

I met with a local Rabbi with whom I and some other Bnei Noach study. We brainstormed subject matter that we would both be interested in pursuing. The massive gap in my knowledge of Jewish history/Torah starts at the kings and goes to about the so called Dark Ages, which, as I understand, in terms of Jewish scholarship weren’t dark at all. But that’s another class. Since I know very little about the Psalms we settled there. We are working our way through each one, one per meeting.

Reading such profound, beautiful, enormously important, popular, influential, and sacred poetry is a joy unto itself. Doing so with a very well educated Rabbi adds so much. The fact that I can’t read Hebrew is very limiting. Rabbi can convey the texture, tone, and movement of the language so that it feels like reading a very different poem.

One aspect of poetry, for example, involves economy of language. Often, and clearly this is the case with the Psalms, each word is chosen very carefully – even going beyond meaning. To which sense or senses is the word appealing? Does it convey motion of any sort? How does the motion it conveys relate to the story within the Psalm, or the message of the Psalm? Is it a formal word or an informal word? Is there a play on words involved? Are there various meanings?

Rhythm of language can be totally thrown off in translation, obviously, especially when the grammar of the languages is so different. Is there a repetition of beginning sounds – or middle, or end? All of this would be pretty much impossible for me to analyze on my own.

Thus far we haven’t focused so much on authorship, solely because we can’t do it all. Rabbi teaches about the structure of the Psalms in terms of stitches, stanzas, and how ideas and messages within the Psalm often follow a formula of sorts.

Of course interlaced throughout we are discussing the religious message of the Psalm and how it applies to one’s life. This particular rabbi is also well educated about other religions, American and European history, and even philosophical movements that have impacted religious life, so we also spend a fair amount of time exploring how some ideas relayed in the Psalms have influenced other faiths or are rejected by other faiths.

If I compare how it feels to study the Psalms versus how it feels to study Chumash, which I also love studying, it’s much more emotional for me. It sounds strange perhaps, but it feels like I am connecting with all of the people who have read the Psalm and been moved by it too because of the way poetry gets into your heart and head in ways studying a book on mussar or a page from Deuteronomy can’t. Clearly they can connect with you in ways that a Psalm might not; it goes both ways.

There is a lyrical quality to a Psalm, even translated, that touches a part of the mind that nothing else quite touches. For example, I was in a toy shop with my son and picked up a fuzzy, stuffed robot that had a clunky little bell in it. The little per plinky plonk sound raced me back to the 1960s. It brought back a sense memory that I didn’t know I had stored away. That’s sort of the place that gets activated when learning Psalms for some reason. When this is combined with a powerful spiritual message, it is an inspiring way to spend an evening. It’s like a heart to heart meeting with the Torah.


At June 27, 2008 at 9:12:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Be sure to see this posting as well.

At June 27, 2008 at 12:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommend the following classic: The Psalms – Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Feldheim Publications). In his introduction to this work,
Rabbi Hirsch writes:

“However, David did not expect that the influence of his songs would be limited solely to the spiritual and moral edification and refinement of the generations of his own people. He confidently felt that his psalms would have an impact also upon the spirits and emotions of all the other nations. He viewed himself and his songs as servants and instrumentalities to advance that Divinely-promised future on earth when delusion and injustice will have vanished from among humanity, when, with the restoration of reverence for the One God, the supreme reign of truth, righteousness, and love, and hence of salvation, will have begun on earth.”

At June 27, 2008 at 4:27:00 PM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

Wow, that could not be more on target. Thank you.


At June 28, 2008 at 10:11:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yosef hakohen's suggestion is excellent. he is an amazing torah teacher. may i also respectfully suggest the artscroll commentary on tehillim (2 vol., approx $60). particularly the extensive introduction;however, if you stick just with the hirsch that reb yosef suggests, you will be doing great.

At June 29, 2008 at 10:49:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I highly recommend that you obtain
the 3 volumes on Tehillim called
Rhythm of the Heart by Rabbi Yitzchak Reuven Rubin. Going through each and every Tehillim,
Rabbi Rubin uses stories and insights for the world we live in

At June 30, 2008 at 9:00:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I really appreciate it.

At July 3, 2008 at 2:14:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

also, for 7 dollar or so you can get the yosef yitzhak chabad paperback tehilim. in the back there are several very nice stories. one i think from the besht...and one in particular from i think maggid mezritch who said tehilim shatter all barriers and go up to the highest heaven and prostrate themselves before the throne of glory..if you only knew how powerful tehilim were, you would never stop saying them.


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