Sunday, May 16, 2021

The cost of kindness

Marc Zvi Brettler asks if the death of the righteous is precious in the eyes of i-h-v-h? I have great respect for Marc and his work, but in this article, he is not carrying the verse to its necessary conclusion: 

  1. the cost to God of creation, and 
  2. the character of i-h-v-h  (Psalms 111) and the one who fears i-h-v-h (Psalms 112)
  3. the thrust of the purpose of the psalms: to form a people who are similarly kind and merciful, i.e. who are in the image and likeness of i-h-v-h. 
It should be no surprise that we humans have difficulty living up to this vocation into which we are invited, whether to write of it or to do it.

First, Marc suggests that Psalms 116:15 is a question. Is it a question? Answer: no. The verse may raise a question in the reader, but it answers it in the affirmative. 

Marc carefully points out, that a question does not need an explicit interrogative, but can be based on tone of voice. Let's see if this could apply in this case. I set part of this psalm to the music of the te'amim with verse 5 as a chorus reflecting the cost to i-h-v-h of creation. (I did not set that exact verse. It reads well as part of the sequence from 110-117, the psalms around which I based my oratorio, Unleashing Leviathan.)

Marc accurately points out the medieval responses to the question raised by this verse. But let's look first at the words: 

iqr byini ihvh 
hmvvth lksidiv

I have no quarrel with iqr glossed as precious, perhaps even rare since the ksid (the one who is merciful) is rare. But ksid should not be rendered as righteous. The ksid (one under mercy) may be declared righteous (xdq / xdiq). But the text does not say righteous in this verse.

So I read it thus:

Precious in the eyes of Yahweh,
is the death of those under his mercy.

Words eventually matter. ksid is derived from ksd which I translate simply as kind, kindness or mercy

Now consider the music: Position the pdf at verse 15 (or see below). Note that 15b (bars 71-72) is two words only. The musical phrase is a recitation on the subdominant and a direct return to the tonic. There is no chance of a question in the tone of voice. The subdominant is a restful reciting note. Recitation on the reciting note defined by the atnah is not uncommon. But here it occurs on three consecutive verses, 14, 15, and 16. I must lay out the data for you because it is complex yet also consistently straightforward.

thlim q'tz Psalms 116 Fn Min Max Syll
a ahbti ci-iwmy ihvh
at-qoli tknunii
1 I love, for Yahweh heard,
the voice of my supplication.
g 3e 4A 8
b ci-h'th aozno li
ubimii aqra
2 For he bent his ear to me,
and in my days I will call.

3e 4B 5
g appuni kbli-mvvt umxri waol mxauni
xrh vigon amxa
3 The pangs of death enveloped me and anguish of Sheol found me.
Trouble and sadness I find.
3e 4C 16
d ubwm-ihvh aqra
anh ihvh ml'th npwi
4 So in the name of Yahweh I will call,
beseeching, Yahweh, make an escape for my being.

3e 4A 6
h knun ihvh vxdiq
valohinu mrkm
5 Gracious is Yahweh and righteous,
and our God is compassionate.
3e 4B 8
v womr ptiim ihvh
dloti vli ihowiy
6 Yahweh keeps the simple.
I was brought low and me he saves.

3e 4B 8
z wubi npwi lmnukiici
ci-ihvh gml yliici
7 Return, O my being, to your rest,
for Yahweh has matured you.
3e 4B 8
k ci kilxt npwi mmvvt
at-yini mn-dmyh
at-rgli mdki
8 For he rescued my being from death,
my eyes from tears,
my foot from tripping.

C 3e 4C 9
't athlç lpni ihvh
barxot hkiim
9 I will walk in the presence of Yahweh,
in the lands of the living.
g 3e 4B 7
i hamnti ci adbr
ani yniti maod
10 I believed so I spoke.
I myself was much afflicted.

g 3e 4B 8
ia ani amrti bkopzi
cl-hadm cozb
11 I myself said in my haste,
Every human lies.
g 3e 4B 8
ib mh-awib lihvh
cl-tgmulohi ylii
12 What will I return to Yahweh,
for all his benefits to me?
3e 4A 5
ig cos-iwuyot awa
ubwm ihvh aqra
13 The cup of salvation I will bear,
so in the name of Yahweh I will call.
3e 4B 6
id ndrii lihvh awlm
ngdh-na lcl-ymo
14 My vows to Yahweh I will pay,
may it be before all his people.

g 3e 4B 8
'tv iqr byini ihvh
hmvvth lksidiv
15 Precious in the eyes of Yahweh,
is the death of those under his mercy.
g 3e 4B 7
'tz anh ihvh ci-ani ybdç
ani-ybdç bn-amtç
pitkt lmosrii
16 Yahweh beseeching, for I myself am your servant,
I myself your servant and child of your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
3d 4B 9
iz lç-azbk zbk todh
ubwm ihvh aqra
17 To you I will offer the offering of thanksgiving,
so in the name of Yahweh I will call.
3e 4B 8
ik ndrii lihvh awlm
ngdh-na lcl-ymo
18 My vows to Yahweh I will pay,
may it be before all his people,
g 3e 4B 8
i't bkxrot bit ihvh btocci iruwlim hllu-ih 19 in the courts of the house of Yahweh, in your centre, O Jerusalem. Hallelu Yah. 3e 4C 17

verses 1, 9, 14, 15, 16, and 18 all have identical musical shape in the second colon returning from the subdominant to the tonic. A ger-rev,e. The sequence A-e as a final phrase occurs 57 times in the 21 prose books. In the poetry books, the particular sequence with the revia-mugrash (ger-rev) occurs 507 times (14% of verses). The sequence of notes in verse 15 occurs in 75 verses of the poetry books (Psalms, Proverbs, Job). If my thesis is correct, then you will find each of these verses has a sense of rest in the final half verse. So above for the verses in question, sing them and hear that sense. Read them with that tone of voice. They are never questions.

What is the question raised by verse 15? Is this verse noted in the New Testament? (Marc, with Amy-Jill Levine, is one of the two editors of the Jewish Annotated New Testament.) A strongly allusive verse Revelation 14:13, reflects the sense of Psalms 116:15. The footnotes in my first edition of the JANT do not mention the psalm allusion. I think this is an oversight. The New Testament has the same rationale behind it as the Psalms: creating a community that shows kindness and embodies mercy.

This psalm begins with the completeness of love, I love, for i-h-v-h heard, // the voice of my supplication. So the poet is willing to 'pay my vows' ngdh-na lcl-ymo, in public, please, before all the people. The poet will 'walk in the lands of the living', note the plural, barxot hkiim. The poet says to i-h-v-h, 'You have loosed my bonds.' Each of these half verses has identical music.

Psalms 116:15b the death of those under his mercy

Needless to say, no one, the churches in their present forms, Israel in its present form, any group that goes by the name of violence, or any group that works with imperialist motives has succeeded in this costly endeavour. 

Let us redefine what we mean when we say ksidim (trad Chasidim or equivalent)- mercy and kindness - not righteousness necessarily, but leading to such a maturity (verse 7). I think we could all agree that kindness is desirable. The question is whether anyone is willing to bear the cost. That is the rare aspect.

Who dares to speak that first verse? I love (open-ended without direct object). Without such love, there are no vows to pay, bonds are not loosed, and we do not walk in the lands of the living.

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