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Drash Psalm 34

Psalm 34

Drash by Myrna Goldman in 1998

The 150 psalms vary in from, content and length.  They were mostly composed during the first Jewish Commonwealth, before the exile to Babylonia. About half of the psalms became part of the Siddur, and there are more than 20 in the daily morning service. Milgram describes them as the "spiritual girders" of the synagogue worship.  Also according to Milgram, the enlargement of the psalms in the Psukei D'Zimra with 9 additional psalms on Shabbat was natural because "the Jew had plenty of time, and he indulged himself" with this addition. I fully agree that the additional time allotted to the davening on Shabbat is a positive factor and that the additional psalms are a real treat.

The Soncino edition of the Psalms mentions in the introduction that in the religious service in the Temple, the psalms were sung by a choir of Levites and by the worshippers with the accompanying string and wind instruments.  The psalms cover the general subjects of praise, elegy, and ethics. The Soncino introduction mentions several main currents of thought found in the Psalms:

1.  G-d: the awareness of G-d's presence; G-d as transcendent and immanent ; G-d as the protector of the weak and near to all who call upon G-d; G-d's many attributes.

2.  Man: the human as the crown of divine creative work, and the human's duty to praise G-d.

3.  Sin: the choice of good and evil; the certainty of eventual retribution.

4.  Revelation: the Torah as a beacon

5.  Israel and Zion: the chosen people and universalism.

(Several of these are present in Psalm 34.)  Because the psalms were chanted or sung, they are often written with parallel constructions; sometimes there are two equal halves, and sometimes 3 sections.
Psalm 34 (pages 62-64 of Siddur Sim Shalom)
Psalm 34 is an acrostic of the Hebrew Alphabet, except that the vav is missing. (There are other psalms that follow this pattern.) I've found the Sim Shalom translation OK (based on my knowledge of Hebrew), but I've always wondered about the first line, which Sim Shalom did not translate in its early printings.  According to the Soncino edition, the translation is [A Psalm] of David; when he changed his demeanor before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed."  This is a reference to an incident in 1 Samuel 21: 11-15, but the King mentioned there is Achish, the King of Gath.  There is a mention in the same chapter to Achimelech the Priest, so perhaps that was the cause of some confusion.  (It is also not clear what this line has to do with the psalm, except perhaps for the reference to deceit, which the psalm commands against.)

Verses 2 through 12 (avarchah through alamedchem) cover the topics of praising G-d, deliverance by G-d, the notion that fearing G-d brings happiness, and the need to seek G-d. I looked with particular interest at verses 13 (mi ha-ish) to the end, because they are most commonly sung (we have two tunes here at TI, and some sing only 3 verses, while I usually sing my tune through to the end).  Verses 13-15 contain the concept of looking for the good in life, a command not to speak evil or seek to deceive people, and a command to turn away from evil and to do good, to seek peace and to pursue it. Verses 16-18 (aynay hashem) are descriptive statements about G-d, focusing on comfort, help, being saved, and on punishment for people who do evil. Verse 19 (karove hashem) talks of G-d helping people when they are especially vulnerable.  Verse 20 (Rabot ra-ot) indicated that bad things do happen to good people, but G-d saves them (eventually), and verse 21 (temotate rasha) notes that evil will kill the wicked person, and the person who hates the righteous will be held guilty. Finally, verse 23 (at the box) speaks of redemption and refuge in G-d.
For me, the main theme of the psalm is comfort and help from G-d in the face of adversity, and also that G-d expects positive actions from us if we expect to receive support.  This then ties in with what I see as the Pseukei D'Zimra preparation for prayer, a time when I feel like I'm settling in and taking in both the feeling of comfort and of being comfortable in the service. The small early morning davening community is part of that comfort for me, and this is also a time when I remember those who are no longer with us in that special community.

 One last comment.  When I first started looking at the psalm several months ago, I read an article in the "United Synagogue Review" by Rabbi Jack Moline where he talked about the uses of singing. He said that during a conflictive time for his synagogue, they would start Board meetings by singing Mi Ha-ish, and that it helped set the tone for those meetings. Sounds like a good idea! Or, perhaps, everyone who is on the listserve should program his/her computer to play the tune every time they enter the discussion --- it might remind them about keeping the tongue from speaking evil!


Given at Tifereth Israel December 26, 1998