This past summer, TABC conducted its fourth annual Tanach Kollel. Fifteen high school students devoted a week to studying Sefer Tehillim in this beautiful program. We emphasized that much of our Tefillah either incorporates or is based on Sefer Tehillim. We noted that the more one delves into Sefer Tehillim, the more he comprehends and appreciates Tefillah. Our Kavanah (devotion and intensity during Tefillah) is greatly enhanced with a more sophisticated understanding of Sefer Tehillim.
In this essay, we shall share some of the insights that we developed in our week of study of this Sefer, which holds a very special place in the heart of every devout Jew. Rav Hayyim Angel (of New York's Spanish-Portuguese synagogue and Yeshiva University) contributed greatly to our discussion, as did the Daat Mikra commentary to Sefer Tehillim (authored by the renowned Amos Chacham), an outstanding work which has been translated for the benefit of the English-speaking world. I thank my Talmid (and Kol Torah editor-in-chief during 2000-2001) Avi-Gil Chaitovsky for providing me with his notes of Rav Angel's Shiurim in Tehillim that he delivered at Yeshiva University.
Mizmor (chapter) 117 is an example of a portion of our Tefillah from Sefer Tehillim that we regularly recite (as part of Hallel) but likely do not fully comprehend. In this Mizmor, which constitutes the shortest chapter in the entire Tanach (2 verses), we state, "Hallelu Et Hashem Kol Goyim… Ki Gavar Aleinu Chasdo," "All nations of the world should praise Hashem… because He has shown great kindness to us." There is an obvious difficulty with this statement (often overlooked because many of us do not ponder the meaning of the Tehillim that we recite). Why should the nations of the world praise Hashem because He has shown kindness to us? This basic question illustrates the need to delve into the meaning of Tehillim. Classic commentators have suggested no less than seven interpretations of this brief chapter.
The Ibn Ezra explains that this Mizmor reflects a call made by David HaMelech to the nations that he conquered (see, for example, Shemuel Bet chapter 8) to accept Hashem. This explains why the goodness bestowed upon us (Bnei Yisrael) would motivate other nations to worship Hashem; the success of Bnei Yisrael demonstrates to other nations the greatness of Hashem (see Shemot 32:12 and Yechezkeil chapter 36). Thus, David reaches out to these nations, noting that our success teaches that the truth lies with Hashem (as stated at the conclusion of this brief Mizmor).
The Malbim understands this Mizmor to refer to the time of the defeat of Sancheiriv, the emperor of Assyria. Sancheiriv was a mighty and vicious warrior who exiled the populations of the countries that he conquered. Ancient artistic depictions (wall reliefs unearthed by archaeologists) of his conquest of Lachish (described in Melachim II 18:14) appear in the British Museum in London. One can appreciate from these depictions the vicious nature of Sancheiriv's armies and sense the great suffering that he caused throughout the ancient Near East (see, for example, Melachim II 18:27).
This evil emperor met his end after the miraculous defeat of his army of 185,000 which was besieging Yerushalayim. In the middle of the night, Hashem sent a Malach who killed all of these soldiers, and soon afterwards Sancheiriv was assassinated (see Melachim II chapter 19). This miracle that Hashem bestowed upon Bnei Yisrael benefited not only our nation but many other nations as well, since it released them from the control of a cruel conqueror. Thus, the author of Mizmor 117, explains the Malbim, calls out to these nations to seize the opportunity to thank Hashem for the great kindness He bestowed upon us, and by extension others as well, through Sancheiriv's fall.
The Radak, in turn, understands that this Mizmor is prophetic in nature and refers to the Messianic era. He explains that the nations of the world will appreciate the greatness of Hashem when they grasp the great miracle of the restoration of Bnei Yisrael and the fulfillment of Hashem's promise to return them from exile. Indeed, the story of a nation separated from its land for nearly two thousand years and then restored to it is already a Kiddush Hashem for those who choose to notice it (as some Nochrim in America already have). This miracle and the concomitant Kiddush Hashem will be magnified when Bnei Yisrael do full Teshuvah and Hashem brings full peace and prosperity to us as He did on behalf of our Avot (as outlined in Devarim chapter 30).
Rashi adopts a different approach. He translates the word "Ki" in the second Pasuk of Mizmor 117 as "even though," instead of the usual "because." Indeed, the Ibn Ezra cites Rabi Moshe Ibn Jikitila as translating the work "Ki" in Shemot 13:17 as "even though," and Rav Menachem Liebtag suggests that this might the proper translation in Bereishit 22:12 as well. Rashi explains this Mizmor to mean that the nations of the world should praise Hashem despite the kindness that He has shown to Bnei Yisrael. This apparently cynical approach might be understood in light of Rashi's bitter experiences of Jew-hatred he endured during the Crusades.
Rabi Moshe Ibn Jikitila and Rav Hirsch
Rabi Moshe Ibn Jikitila (cited in Ibn Ezra) interprets this Mizmor in an entirely different fashion than the other Meforshim. He explains the word "Aleinu" to refer to all of humanity. Ibn Jikitila understands this section as a call to all nations of the world to express the kindness that Hashem has bestowed upon all of humanity. This approach is adopted by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch as well. Rav Hayyim Angel notes that the Midrash Tehillim, citing Rabi Yehoshua ben Chanania and Rabi Tanchum, supports the interpretation of Ibn Jikitila and Rav Hirsch.
Rav Angel notes that this dispute as to whether the word "Aleinu" refers to Bnei Yisrael or all of humanity reflects a variation in Sefer Tehillim. Some of the Mizmorim are appropriate for all people and others are focused on our nation specifically. Indeed, the last six Mizmorim of Tehillim (145-150), recited daily in Pesukei DeZimra, are an example of this variety. On one hand, chapters 145,146 and 150 contain no explicit reference to Bnei Yisrael and thus appear to be appropriate for all people. On the other hand, chapters 147-149 each contain explicit references to Bnei Yisrael (note especially 147:20 and 148:14).
Rabi Yishmael ben Rabi Yosi - Pesachim 118b
Rabi Yishmael ben Rabi Yosi (Pesachim 118b) solves this problem by noting that there are missing words in the Pasuk, found only by the discerning reader. He explains that 117:1 is a call to the nations of the world to acknowledge Hashem for the miracles that He has shown them, and 117:2 adds that Bnei Yisrael must certainly praise Hashem because he bestows so much ("Gavar" literally means "became strong") of His kindness upon us.
We should note that adding a missing phrase is a "Peshuto Shel Mikra" approach to explaining Pesukim, especially in Tehillim (see, for example, Daat Mikra to 27:13). Indeed, this style of interpretation is familiar to students of Gemara, which often employs the technique of "Chisurei Mechasra" to explain an obscure passage in a Mishnah.
It is related that the Netziv (who lived in Lithuania during the second half of the nineteenth century and was forced to deal with the oppressive anti-Semitic policies of the Czarist Russian government) was once confronted by a Czarist official who posed our question regarding Mizmor 117. The Netziv responded that the Czarist government officials (and other enemies of Bnei Yisrael) enjoy a unique and exclusive perspective on the kindness that Hashem has bestows upon the Jews. Only Bnei Yisrael's enemies are aware of the innumerable plots intended to persecute them which were unable to be implemented. Thus, the Netziv stated, only other nations are able to praise Hashem to the fullest extent, because only they comprehend the full scope of His kindness to Bnei Yisrael.
who participated in the Tanach Kollel noted that this comment of the Netziv need not be understood merely as a sharp retort to an individual in a position of power. Rather, the life experience of the Netziv yields this understanding of Tehillim 117. Indeed, Daat Mikra repeatedly cites the comment of Chazal (to Tehillim 18) that the words of Tehillim were stated by David HaMelech for himself, for all of Bnei Yisrael, and for all times. Although this is true of the entire Torah, it is especially important in the Mizmorim in Tehillim, which serve as a vehicle through which we express our emotions and feelings to Hashem. David HaMelech and his assistants (see Bava Batra 14b-15a and Daat Mikra's introduction to Sefer Tehillim) constructed the Tehillim in a manner that makes it flexible to the extent that it is meaningful for each generation. Indeed, our seven interpretations of Mizmor 117 reflect this flexibility, as each of these approaches
fits beautifully into the text. (For a fuller discussion of this Mizmor, see Rav Angel's recently published "Through an Opaque Lens.") I hope that our analysis of this Mizmor provides a glimpse of how Sefer Tehillim was written with Ruach HaKodesh and why it occupies a very special place in the hearts of the Jewish People