Parshas Acharei Mos
Hallel (II) Mizmor 114 - B'Tzet Yisra'el MiMitzrayim
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
לע"נ אמי מורתי מרים בת יצחק ורבקה הכ"מ
PSALM 114 - A UNIQUE PSALM
The second chapter of Hallel is unique in several ways. It is unique within
the context of Hallel, in that it is the only chapter that makes any overt
reference to any historic event. It's iconoclastic nature is further borne
out by the dispute regarding its recital at the "Shirah-Hallel" at the Seder
(see V'shinantam 1/25 §II.B.4). According to Beit Shamai, it is to be
said along with the completion of Hallel on the fourth cup; whereas Beit
Hillel rule (and such is the Halakhah) that it joins the opening chapter as
said over the second cup as part of "Maggid".
Within the scope of Sefer T'hillim, Chapter 114 stands alone, as well.
Although the Exodus is mentioned in a number of psalms (generally the
historiosophies, such as ps. 78 and ps. 105), this is the only psalm that is
exclusively dedicated to Yetziat Mitzrayim. It seems to be the reason that
this series of six psalms is known as "Hallel Mitzrayim" (see last week's
shiur). Furthermore, it may be suggested that without this psalm, the
association with the Exodus that we are able to extract from the remaining
chapters is only possible due to the overt Exodus-theme in this psalm. We
will elaborate on this point in the next shiur.
We raised several points in the first shiur that we will pick up in the
first half of this shiur, after which we will analyze the psalm in detail,
attending both to its structure and literary devices that infuse it with
meaning beyond the simple impact of the words. There are several overall
difficulties that obstruct a proper understanding of the psalm - we will
attend to them and suggest several approaches that not only resolve these
difficulties but enhance our appreciation - and the impact - of this
beautiful piece of sanctified poetry.
In the first installment in this series, I noted that "common wisdom" holds
David to be the sole author of T'hillim - indeed, even those psalms which
are apparently attributed to other composers (such as the 12 Korahide
psalms, 42-49; 84-85; 87-88), will inevitably be credited to David's pen. As
I adumbrated last week, there is only one opinion among "major" traditional
commentators that ascribes authorship of T'hillim exclusively to David - the
opinion presented by Sa'adiah Ga'on. As noted, this approach contradicts the
one presented in the Gemara (BT Bava Batra 14b-15a) which credits David with
the redaction of T'hillim, adding his own psalms to those composed by ten
contributors who preceded him (Adam, Malkizedek, Abraham, Mosheh, Heiman,
Yedutun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah).
Sa’adiah presented two introductions to his commentary on T’hillim – one
short, the other much longer. In his short introduction, he presents his
basic approach to T’hillim: It is a prophetic book (more on this later), in
which the prophet David writes in a wide range of rhetoric styles, all
intended to one purpose. That purpose is to instruct us in the proper ethic.
Since people respond to various types of speech, the prophet places “the
words of the Master in the mouth of the servant”, such that petition,
praise, cries of despair etc., which make up the bulk of the text of
T’hillim, are all instructive. After listing the ten rhetorical
devices/styles used to instruct man – and providing examples of each from
T’nakh – Sa’adiah states:
We must understand the prophet’s words in this book, such as “have mercy
upon me”, as [spoken by Hashem] – “I will have mercy upon My servant” – and
[understand] “heed my prayer” as “I will hear your prayer”…and similarly
everything in this book. All is the word of Hashem and nothing is human
discourse, as the faithful transmitters of our tradition have attested.
One of the most far-reaching implications of Sa’adiah’s formula is to remove
the 150 psalms from the “world of prayer” – if the text is prophetic and
instructive, it is not prayer and should not be read (or used) as such. We
will revisit this issue below.
As Uriel Simon points out in his “Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms”
(SUNY Press, 1991), the premise of the unity of the text (single authorship)
is nowhere supported by Sa’adiah; his claim that Hakhmei haMesorah have
attested to the whole work being the word of God is likewise never backed up
in his introduction. Simon surmises that the former assumption must be based
on the common practice in Rabbinic literature to preface citations from
T’hillim with the customary “as it says” without distinguishing one author
A full treatment of Sa’adiah’s approach is well beyond the scope of this
forum – the interested reader is directed to Simon’s work – but it is
critical that we sketch a few of the components of his appreciation of
The first problem within the text of T’hillim that presents a challenge to
Sa’adiah is the multiplicity of superscriptions that ascribe authorship to
others (as noted above). “T’fillah l’Mosheh” (ps. 90), “Mizmor l’Asaph”
(e.g. ps. 50) etc. all direct us away from Davidic composition. Sa’adiah
responds to this in his long introduction. He maintains that the
superscriptions have nothing to do with composition, rather with direction.
That particular psalm was composed by David (prophetically) to be performed
in the Mikdash by that particular family of Levites. In this manner, he
interprets “T’fillah l’Mosheh” as composed by David for the descendants of
Mosheh, all Levites, to perform.
The second problem, again inherent in the text, is the very liturgical
nature of the psalms. In spite of his explanation (in the short
introduction) that this is merely a rhetorical tool, it still does not fully
explain why the text would be presented in such a “misleading” fashion.
He responds to this by noting that beside the instructive value of the text,
it was used in the Mikdash – albeit ritually, rather than liturgically. Each
psalm was composed for performance in the Mikdash, and each had five
conditions attached to it:
1) , Personal – each psalm belongs only to that Levitical
family to whom it was assigned;
2) Melodic – the specific tune composed to accompany that psalm
must be used whenever it is recited/performed (here Sa’adiah goes on at
length, utilizing contemporary musical theory to explain six different
3) Instrumental – each psalm has certain instruments assigned to
its performance and they must be used;
4) – each psalm was to be recited on a specific day
(the only explicit direction of this sort given in a psalm is ps. 92 –
“Mizmor Shir l’Yom haShabbat”);
5) Local – each psalm was to be recited in a specific place
within the Mikdash.
Noting how far Sa’adiah’s basic approach to T’hillim strayed from
traditional Rabbinic thinking – his theory never found any adherents in
later Rabbinic commentators – one would have to wonder what motivated him to
interpret T’hillim in such a difficult manner. Not only did he deviate from
tradition in his assessment, he also made his own task much more taxing.
He had to defend his position not only against traditionalists (and others,
as we will see forthwith) but also against anyone reading the text in a
straightforward manner. The many references to other authors, the
overwhelming prayerful style of the rhetoric all militate against his approach.
There are two avenues open to understanding the underlying motivation for
his approach; one textual and the other polemic.
THE TEXTUAL MOTIVE:
The text of T’hillim is part and parcel of T’nakh and holds an honored
place within the canon. Since the T’nakh is generally understood as “a
record of D’var Hashem”, the inclusion of T’hillim becomes problematic.
Perhaps Sa’adiah is bothered by the inclusion of human words, supplications,
plaints, exultations and laments in the Book of Books. Sa’adiah resolves
this quandry (and we will see a very different response in the next
section), by arguing that we err in our premise. The text differs from
Yeshayah and Yirmiyah – overtly the words of the Ribbono Shel Olam – in
rhetorical style only. This also helps us pre-empt the inevitable challenge
to the Rabbinic position outlined in the Gemara which ascribes redaction of
this compendium of prayers to David – that reference and responses to events
taking place after David’s death (notably “by the waters of Babylon” ps.
137) are hard to fathom. Sa’adiah’s assignation of the text to prophecy
neatly sidesteps the problem; once we accept the text as prophetic in
nature, chronological sequence ceases to be an obstacle to authorship.
In addition, there are several textual clues that can support Sa’adiah. The
lamed prefix which is included in all of the superscriptions (.e.g “Mizmor
lDavid” etc.), commonly interpreted as indicating authorship (i.e. “a song
of David”), cannot be consistently interpreted this way, following the
Davidic redaction suggested in Bava Batra. Psalms 72 and 127 include
superscriptions with “liSh’lomoh” – and Sh’lomoh was not included as one of
the ten elders who composed T’hillim. Therefore, we must - at least on
occasion – read the lamed prefix as “on behalf of” rather than “composed
by”. Once we’ve allowed for that possibility (again, a necessity according
to the BT), there is nothing to keep us from interpreting every non-Davidic
lamed in the same way – which works quite well for Sa’adiah’s approach.
THE POLEMIC MOTIVE:
Sa’adiah was a great – and trailblazing - commentator, philosopher,
grammarian, poet etc., he was also an accomplished polemicist. The chief
group that felt the sharp edge of his pen was the Karaite sect, which held
powerful influence in the Jewish communities in Israel and Mesopotamia.
Sa’adiah’s chief philosophical work – “The Choicest of Beliefs and
Opinions”, was devoted, in part, to deflecting the Karaite attacks on the
Rabbinates. He even composed a philological work – “Shiv’im Milim Bod’dot”,
detailing the 70 instances of hapax legomenon (unmatched words in the
T’nakh), in order to demonstrate that without the Mesorah, it would be
impossible to properly interpret the Written Word.
One of the bones of contention among the Karaites was the Rabbinic
composition of prayer, variously ascribed to Ezra and his Great Assembly,
Shim’on haPakuli and other Sages. The Karaites protested the use of
“man-made” prayers to approach God; they insisted that only those prayers
that bear the Divine stamp of approval – i.e. included in T’nakh – may be
used for prayer. As such, they would only pray from the T’nakh, chiefly
using the book of T’hillim for purposes of prayer.
As part of the ongoing war with the Karaites, Sa’adiah challenged their
position on prayer. There is certainly room to consider that Sa’adiah may
have taken a more radical position than he personally maintained and that he
did so as part of this polemic. By excising “prayer” from T”nakh (such that
every passage that seems to be a prayer is really prophecy and is
instruction to man on how to relate to haKadosh Barukh Hu), he took out the
rug from beneath the legs of their argument. There is certainly precedent
for maintaining that a position taken by Sa’adiah ought to be adjudged as
directed towards a contemporary crisis – see Rambam’s “Iggeret Teiman” and
his comments on Sa’adiah’s Messianic calculations.
RAMBAM AND “RUACH HAKODESH”
As mentioned above, one of the chief difficulties inherent in the inclusion
of T’hillim in T’nakh (a problem which encompasses far more than just
T’hillim; Eikhah, whole sections of N’vi’im and even prayers found in the
Torah fall under this rubric) is the very nature of such texts. How can we
resolve man’s words as worthy of occupying the same space as God’s? Let us
phrase this with greater rigor. We assume that the T’nakh represents God’s
words as given to the greatest of the N’vi’im (Mosheh) and then through
other prophets throughout the history until the beginning of the second
commonwealth (5th century BCE). What are we to make of anthropo-generated
words – in prayer or in lament – as belonging in the T’nakh?
Truth to tell, there are words found in the Torah itself that are not only
non-Divine in source, they are even heretical. When Pharaoh declares: “I do
not know Hashem” (Sh’mot 5:2), we can hardly ascribe Divinity to these
terrible words. What accords this phrase its sanctity? Not the foreign
heretical source – rather the Divine command given to Mosheh (somewhere
between Sinai and Arvot Mo’av) to commit these words to writing. It is
axiomatic – and the central theme of Bamidbar 12 – that any prophecy given
to Mosheh is qualitatively superior and of a different essence than that
given to all other prophets. This explains the division between Torah and
the rest of the T’nakh (“Nach”) – the Torah represents a clearer, more
distilled and straightforward prophecy.
What are we to make of the further division into N’vi’im and K’tuvim? Why is
Sh’mu’el in N’vi’im and Ruth in K’tuvim?
Rambam, in his philosophic magnum opus Moreh Nevukhim (II 45) answers this
by way of establishing gradations of levels of Divine inspiration. Rambam
maintains that there are eleven levels of N’vu’ah – each more intense than
the earlier one.
The most sublime level of prophecy is that of Mosheh Rabbenu; the prophecy
he received represented the greatest intensity of the Divine ever
experienced by a human. The first level “consists in the fact that an
individual receives a Divine help that moves and activates him to a great,
righteous and important action – such as the deliverance of a community of
virtuous people from a community of wicked people…The individual in question
finds in himself something that moves and incites him to the action, and
that is called the spirit of Hashem. And it is said of the individual who
was in such as state that the spirit of Hashem came upon him…this is the
grade of all the Shof’tim of Israel…”
(Rambam ascribes this level to Mosheh when he slayed the Egyptian who was
oppressing the Hebrew slave, among others).
The second level “…consists in the fact that an individual finds that a
certain thing has descended upon him and that another force has come upon
him and has made him speak; so that he talks in wise sayings, in words of
praise, in useful admonitory dicta, or concerning governmental or divine
matters – and all this while he is awake and his senses function as usual.
Such an individual is said to speak b’Ruach haKodesh. It is through
this kind of Ruach haKodesh that David composed T’hillim…”
For Rambam, the division into N’vi’im and K’tuvim is one of degree – the
human authors of N’vi’im were committing to writing the result of an
ecstatic prophetic experience, one in which they lost all faculties and
sense of self (as described in the “higher levels” in that same chapter).
The authors of K’tuvim, on the other hand, were composing on much more of a
“human” level; they were using their own creative powers (“a certain thing
has descended upon him”) and were “pushed” beyond what they could possibly
accomplish on their own by a “force [which] has come upon him…”
As with any other explanation of the division of T”nakh, this one has its
own problems. As Abravanel points out (in his introduction to his commentary
on Daniel), how could the same Navi (Sh’mu’el) compose his eponymous work on
the “Navi” level, earning its place among the N’vi’im, while composing Ruth
that is “only” included in K’tuvim?
This question can be answered as follows: Even Mosheh operated, as Rambam
himself points out, on various levels along the “N’vu’ah-continuum”.
Certainly his conversations with family members etc. were not suffused with
the same level of Divine inspiration as the Mitzvot written in the Torah.
Indeed, even Mosheh prayed – and that prayer did not “make it” into the
Torah, but was considered to be “only” composed “b’Ruach HaKodesh”, which is
why it was included in T’hillim (ch. 90).
In sum, Rambam’s approach to the “T’hillim problem” is quite simple:
although both Torah (on a higher level) and N’vi’im (on a lesser level)
represent God’s directive to man, K’tuvim include those compositions that
are essentially “human-driven” but which, by virtue of Divine assistance,
are considered Divine and worthy of inclusion in T”nakh. Hence, one would
have to argue that as Sh’mu’el was composing Ruth (or Yirmiyah authoring
Eikhah), he was overtaken by the “Divine Spirit” (even though he had, at
other times, experienced much more intense levels of Divine inspiration)
which allowed him to compose that which he could not ever compose on his own.
T”hillim is a compilation of prayers – running the gamut from praise to
lament – composed by various individuals during the period when prophecy was
operating in the world and compiled (according to the Bavli, by David). It
is included in T’nakh not due solely to its elegance, beauty or truth –
rather on account of its composition being enabled by the suffusion of Ruach
Although the topics covered in this (2nd part of our) introduction to
T’hillim do not directly impact upon our study of psalm 114, they form a
necessary preface to our study of these six psalms so that we might better
appreciate the method utilized here.
PSALM 114: THE TEXT
1. When Yisra’el went from Egypt, the house of Ya’akov from a people of
2. Yehudah was His sanctuary, and Yisra’el His dominion.
3. The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan was driven back.
4. The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like lambs.
5. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you are driven back?
6. O mountains, that you skip like rams? And you O hills, like lambs?
7. Tremble, earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God
8. Who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of
STRUCTURE OF THE PSALM
As was the case in ch. 113, there aren't a lot of difficulties with the
meaning of the words in this Mizmor. We will reexamine one or two words
later on, but, for the most part, the words are accessible and unambiguous.
What they mean and to what they refer - that is a far different question
and ambiguities abound.
Before breaking the psalm down into its stanzas, there is an overall
question that must be posed at this point. What is this psalm celebrating?
In other words, what event is the focus of the praise here - and what is the
purpose of this praise?
At first blush, these questions seem a bit sophomoric. The common
assumption is that the event in question is the Exodus in general and the
splitting of the Reed Sea in particular - and the praise is directed
towards God Who redeemed His people. We will soon see that this
"conventional" understanding has little to recommend it in the text; we will
have to reevaluate our assessment of this chapter of Hallel.
Where would we properly identify the stanzas of the psalm?
Unlike many chapters of T'hillim, where we first identify the greater
sections and then break each one into sub-sections (as we will do in the
next shiur), we will be better served here by moving from the smaller
division to the greater.
This chapter clearly breaks into four even stanzas, each containing two
verses, each of which contains two stichs. Its very symmetry makes the
division quite clear. Furthermore, each stich stands in parallel to its
partner, and each verse stands in a clearly evolving relationship with its
When Yisra'el left Mitzrayim The House of Ya'akov(=Yisra'el)
from a foreign nation (=Mitzrayim)
(at that point):
Yehudah was His sanctuary, and Yisra’el (=Yehudah) His dominion
We may easily title the four stanzas as such:
A (vv. 1-2): Setting
B (vv. 3-4) Reaction of Nature
C (vv. 5-6) Questioning Nature about this reaction
D (vv. 7-8) Nature's Response
The difficulty begins when we try to align these four into two larger groups
- what are the two halves of the psalm?
At this point, it is prudent to remind ourselves that we can only arrive at
a proper appreciation of the psalm, the emotion it is intended to imbue in
the reader and its meaning, by assessing its poetic structure.
We might propose that the first two stanzas form the first half: "The
Event", and the last two form the second half: "The Dialogue". We could
argue, with equal persuasion, that the first and last stanzas form one unit
- both refer to God and B'nei Yisra'el, while the middle stanzas are
self-referential in their words, phrases and content.
Aryeh Leib Strauss, a German Jew who joined the nascent “Teshuvah” movement
among young German Jews at the beginning of the 20th century and made Aliyah
as a result, received his training and professorship in the field of
literature. When the Aliyat haNo’ar project was founded in the mid-30’s
(Aliyat haNo’ar was a program initiated by the Palestinian Jewish community
to encourage the German Jews to send their children to Eretz Yisrael to
study. The thinking was that if, as the Eretz Yisrael community correctly
perceived, the end was nigh for German Jewry, at least their children would
be saved. Tens of thousands of Jews were rescued from the impending Shoah as
a result), a rush for qualified instructors led the Jewish Agency to seek
master teachers at the Hebrew University. Although he had never taught
T”nakh, Professor Strauss was enlisted to teach T’hillim to the future
teachers of this life-saving program. (Nehama Leibowitz z”l was also an
instructor in that program and later became a colleague and admirer of
Professor Strauss and his work). He relied upon the only tools that he had
at his behest and utilized the tools of literary analysis to explain and
teach T’hillim. He later published a booklet - Al Sh’loshah Pirkei
T’hillim, in which his analysis of three chapters of T’hillim was
sketched out in brief, somewhat recondite form. One of those chapters is our
In his analysis, Strauss points out that the relationship between the four
stanzas is a combination of both possibilities raised above.
There are two perspectives from which our psalm may be viewed – and both
In one aspect, the psalm describes God’s power as manifested in history
(stanza A) and as found in nature (stanzas B & C). The psalm concludes by
returning to the first theme.
In the other aspect, the psalm tells of the powerful reaction of nature to
God’s redemption (stanzas A & B), followed by a meditative portion in the
form of question and answer.
Note that according to either aspect, the psalm returns to the opening idea
– God’s redemption of His people – at the end of the psalm; this return is,
however, more of an ascending spiral than a simple circle. This is where the
beauty of Strauss’ analysis begins.
The beginning of the psalm refers to God without making mention of His Name
– “Yehudah was His sanctuary…” [This awkward phrasing is likely what led the
Greek translators in Alexandria (the Septuagint) to add the word
“Halleluyah” to the beginning of the psalm – there should at least be a
mention of God to which “His sanctuary” refers.] At the end of the psalm, He
is referred to by Name - Adon Huli Aretz and E-lo’ah Ya’akov.
Furthermore, the opening stanza presents the Exodus as Yisra’el-generated -
B’tzet Yisra’el miMitz’rayim, whereas the end of the psalm attributes
the powerful reaction of nature to God’s appearance and actions.
There is a type of inversion going on within the psalm. As God’s presence
becomes more manifest and overt, the terms of excitement in nature become
more compact. The “mountains” become “hills”, the “sea” becomes “Jordan” and
“rams” turn to “sheep”. The verbs, as well, go through this process of
diminution: “fled” becomes “ran backward”.
Strauss points to a more intricate process of contraction in the “gapping”
of the parallels. (Gapping is the process whereby a term is introduced in
one half of the verse and is tacitly “carried over” to or from the second
half), as follows: (The words in brackets are not explicitly in the text,
but are understood from the previous phrase):
5. What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
[What ails you] O Jordan, [that] you are driven back?
6. [What ails you] O mountains, [that] you skip like rams?
[What ails you] O hills, [that you skip] like lambs?
By the end of this phrase, three words g’va’ot kiv’nei tzo’n
represent seven: mah lakhem g’va’ot, ki tirk’dun kiv’nei tzo’n.
This process of intensification through contraction continues through the
end of the psalm: The rock of 8a becomes a flint stone in 8b, and the “pool
of water” in 8a shrinks to a “spring” in 8b.
SUMMARY OF STRAUSS’ ANALYSIS
Strauss, using tools with which he was comfortable and familiar, brought a
fresh and insightful understanding to this psalm. Seeing it as a paean to
God for the Exodus, it focuses on the impact of God’s Presence on the
natural world, with ever-growing intensity as His Name becomes more “known”.
The seemingly “human” event chronicled in the first stanza provokes a
violent reaction in the natural world that, after investigation,
demonstrates that that event was nothing less than God’s salvation.
Professor Meir Weiss z”l, who did much to enhance our study of T’nakh over
the past half century (he taught at Bar-Ilan University), wrote several
articles about this psalm. To represent his work here would take two issues
by itself – but there are several points he makes which are so choice that
they must be included.
Weiss also points out the odd phrasing at the beginning, which seems to
paint the Exodus as bereft of the Divine. He further points to the odd
choice of a parallel for Mitzrayim - Am Lo’ez – why note the foreign
language, as opposed to the many harsher descriptions of Egypt and its people?
One larger question that he poses addresses the descriptions in the psalm.
As noted above, we conventionally think of this psalm as referring to the
events of the Exodus – the sea fleeing is a poetic take on the Splitting of
the Sea. That is, however, difficult on several counts. First of all, what
is the role of the Jordan here – unless we choose to extend the Exodus until
the entry into the Land. That is, itself, not so outlandish – but what is
the role of the “dancing mountains” here? What are these mountains and where
do we ever read of their dancing like rams in Sh’mot? Furthermore, the
description of the sea is itself troubling; describing the sea as “fleeing”
is not merely a poetic way of describing the splitting of the sea – it is an
utter inversion of the description in Sh’mot. Part of the demonstration
effected at Yam Suf was God’s total mastery over nature – the sea split
because God commanded it do so; the description in our passage leaves us
with the impression that the sea (and Jordan), acting as an independent
agent, chose to flee. It is as if there is another event, one unrelated to
the miracle at Yam Suf, which is the object of praise here.
As we have noted in many essays, the text often utilizes phrases and unusual
words which form an association with earlier narratives, laws, prophecies
etc. so as to draw two events, personalities etc. together. This is done as
often for purposes of contrast (as in the case of Megillat Esther and the
many word-associations which connect Achashverosh’s palace to the Mishkan)
as for analogy.
Weiss suggests that the beginning of our psalm is built upon the opening
dialogue at Sinai between God and Mosheh: (Sh’mot 19:1-6)
1. In the third month, when the B’nei Yisra’el were gone forth
out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.
2. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of
Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Yisra’el camped before
3. And Moses went up to God, and Hashem called to him from the
mountain, saying, Thus shall you say to the house of Ya’akov, and tell the
people of Yisra’el;
4. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on
eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.
5. Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My
covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the
earth is Mine;
6. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.
These are the words which you shall speak to the B’nei Yisra’el.
Now we can revisit our psalm:
Just as that chapter opens with tze’t B’nei Yisra’el – so does our
psalm. The reference to Beit Ya’akov draws us to the command in v. 3
The “foreign tongue” is again part of this association. In v. 4, God
describes taking the people out al Kanfei Nesharim – a later verse in
the Torah describes the swooping of a Nesher (although translated
Hashem shall bring a nation against you from far, from the end of the
earth, which will swoop down like the vulture; a nation whose tongue you
shall not understand; (D’varim 28:49)
The psalmist (remember Rambam’s description) ties in the “foreign tongue”
from D’varim to the Nesher, using it as a poetic description of the
people from whom we were redeemed.
Yehudah and Yisra’el are synonymous here; but looking back at Sh’mot 19:6
reminds us that we were chosen for a two-fold task: To be a kingdom
(dominion) and a holy people (sanctuary). Both terms – Kodsho and
Mam’sh’lotav parallel these two tasks.
Why were these terms “matched” the way they were? Yehudah carries within it
the Name of God, (only a daled is added), such that Kodsho fits
“Yehudah” much better. Yisra’el, on the other hand, was the name given to
Ya’akov because he held dominion over the angel and over man.
The natural phenomena here are not paralleled in any account of either the
Exodus or the Stand at Sinai. (Lightning, thunder, smoke etc. – but no
“mountains dancing” or “seas fleeing”). We do, however, find these phenomena
in descriptions in Yeshayah and T’hillim as associated with the appearance
of God (note especially psalm 29). All of these creatures are acting against
their natural assignment – rivers are to flow downstream and hills are to
remain stable. In this manner, the second stanza parallels the first – the
first describes a change of place, the second a change of state.
The gradual reduction of words used here is an expression of the psalmist’s
amazement at what he now sees – all boundaries of time and space erased, he
stands before the dancing mountains and fleeing sea and is stunned at their
I noted above that there would be one or two words that needed
clarification. Huli here has been translated as a command – “tremble”
– given to the earth. This is hard to accept within the context of the
verse. Weiss suggests, instead, that we read huli as related to
Meholel; to wit: Creator of the World. In other words, the dancing
and fleeing is happening because of an appearance of the Creator, Whose
presence inspires this amazing reaction throughout creation.
Note how beautifully the psalmist takes the dancing mountains (made of rock)
and turns them to pools of water and springs (the sea/Jordan). The two
components of creation that lost their bearings and left their moorings at
the sight of the Almighty not only melt at his Presence, they also turn one
into the other at His word.
This psalm is not specifically about the Exodus; it is rather, an expression
of amazement that the selection of Yisra’el, as defined in Sh’mot 19:1-6,
has caused such an upheaval in nature. It is an expression of the idea that
“the choice of Yisra’el was a revolution in Creation, or, more exactly, a
new Creation.” (Weiss, The Bible In Its Own Image, p. 374).
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.