Rav Yossi Slotnik
Former Rosh Kollel, Cape Town Kollel, 2005
In Vayikra Rabba (beginning of parsha 21), our Sages discuss various possible interpretations of this chapter of Tehillim (chapter 27). The structure of the first part of the chapter is fairly straightforward: “God is my light and my salvation”: there is some sort of impending danger – “when evildoers approach me, to consume my flesh; my foes and enemies against me” – from which the Holy One saves a person and becomes “my light and my salvation”. The conclusion that the person draws from this is that he should put his faith in God when faced with future troubles, too: even “if an army would besiege me, my heart would not be afraid”; even “if war would be waged against me – in this (zot) I trust”. The Midrash, of course, seeks to clarify what “this” refers to. On what basis is the person so certain that the future holds the same miracles that God performed for him in the past?
From this point onwards the Midrash speaks for itself; we shall examine it here and add a few comments at the end:
“Concerning what is written (Tehillim 27), ‘Of David: God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear’”
Rabbi Eliezer maintains that this recalls the miracle of the splitting of the sea:
“My light” – at the sea, as it is written (Shemot 14:20), “it illuminated the night”
“and my salvation” – “Stand and still and see God’s salvation” (Shemot 14:13);
“whom shall I fear?” – “and Moshe said: fear not” (ibid.)
“God is my life’s strength” – “the Lord is my strength and song” (15:2)
“Whom shall I dread?” – “fear and dread shall fall upon them” (15:16)
“When evildoers approach me” – “And Paro approached” (14:10)
“To consume my flesh” – “The enemy said: I shall pursue; I shall overtake… my hand shall dispossess (to) them” (15:9): the text does not say “shall dispossess them” (torisham) but rather “shall dispossess to them” (torishemo) – i.e., I shall bequeath my riches and honor to them
“My foes and enemies against me” – “He overthrew Paro and his army”.
Henceforth Israeldeclares (Tehillim 27) “If an army (of Egyptians) would besiege me, my heart would not be afraid; if (the Egyptians) would wage war against me – in this I would trust: in His promise to me, as it is written, “God will fight for you”.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman maintains that the reference is to the Philistines:
“When evildoers approach me” – this refers to Goliat, as it is written (Shmuel I 17), “The Philistine approached, every morning and every night”
“to consume my flesh” – “The Philistine said to David: Come to me and I shall give your flesh to the birds of the heavens…” (ibid.)
Henceforth David declared before God: “If an army (of Philistines) would besiege me, my heart would not be afraid; if (the Philistines) would wage war against me – in this I would trust: Rabbi Levi said, this refers to Moshe’s farewell address in the Torah, where he says to the elders (Devarim 33), “And this to Yehuda…”.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi reads this as referring to the Amalekim:
“When evildoers approach me” – this refers to the Amalekim, as it is written (Shmuel I 30:1), “The Amalekim raided the Negevand Tziklag”
“To consume my flesh” – “and David’s two wives were taken captive” (30:5)
“My foes and enemies against me” (ibid.) – “And David smote them from twilight to the evening of the next day” (30:17)
Henceforth David said: “If an army (of Amalekim) would besiege me, my heart would not be afraid; if (the Amalekim) would wage war against me – in this I would truest” Rabbi Levi said, “this refers to the Moshe’s farewell address to the elders: “And this to Yehuda…”.”
The Sages maintain that this refers to Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur:
“My light” – on Rosh ha-Shana, “and my salvation” – on Yom Kippur
“Whom shall I fear?” – God is my strength and song
“When evildoers approach me” – this refers to the guardian angels of the nations
“to consume my flesh” – because the guardian angels of the nations come and accuse Israelbefore God; they say: Master of the universe; these worship idols and so do they; these engage in immoral sexual relations and so do they; these shed blood and so do they. For what reason do these go down to Gehennom while those do not?
“My foes and enemies against me” – the solar year consists of 365 days. The Gematria (numerial value) of the name “Satan” is 364. Throughout all the days of the year, the Satan accuses (Israel), but on Yom Kippur he does not. Hence Israeldeclare before God: “If an army (of Satan) would besiege me, “my heart would not be afraid – as you have promised me: “This is how Aharon shall come to the Holy of Holies…”.”
The Midrash proposes four possible “identities” that match the description here:
– the Egyptians attacking us at the Red Sea
– Goliat attacking David
– Amalek attacking Israelin David’s time
– The nations of the world attacking/accusing Israelon the Day of Judgment
There are various ways of analyzing these possibilities; we shall discuss just one.
Material vs. spiritual
The first three explanations describe God’s salvation at a time of war. All three are actual episodes from Israel’s history, and all three occur at key points in the nation’s development: at the sea, God chooses Israelover Egypt. The battles against Goliat and against the Amalekim aid the process ultimately leading to David’s appointment as king of Israel, with enough support to prevent him from falling into the same trap that caused Shaul to lose the kingdom. When God intervenes in war on our behalf, we are grateful – but not completely astounded, since the Torah and the books of the prophets are full of instances of such Divine intervention. To some extent we regard this as part of the covenant that was forged between Israel and God – to the extent that Sefer Shoftim treats such Divine intervention as a sort of regular process of reward and punishment.
The fourth possibility offered by the Midrash is of a completely different nature. Here we are not speaking of a one-time historical battle, but rather of a battle that takes place year after year. The resounding question, “These worship idols and so do those; these engage in immoral sexual relations and so do those; these shed blood and so do those. For what reason do these go down to Gehennom while those do not?” exposes us in all our shortcoming. If we were counting on the covenant between us and God, we discover that we have no leg to stand on and we are not worthy of God’s intervention on our behalf, for by law – according to strict justice- we should, heaven forefend, be consigned to Gehennom. Indeed, God’s intervention comes as a complete surprise. Even in our pitiful and corrupt state, He intervenes on our behalf. But His intervention here is on the spiritual rather than the physical level: He provides special days when we are able to approach Him without the “barriers” of our evil deeds. On Yom Kippur and on Sukkot we have the opportunity to build our relationship with God in circumvention, as it were, of reality: we are His people even if there are murderers and idolaters among us.
God offers us this closeness without any “recompense” expected of us; it is independent of reward and punishment. It is offered only because He is our “light and salvation”. So it was in the past, and so we believe it will be in the future. But we base our faith on the desire to continue with the “this”: our desire to continue to be dependent on Yom Kippur and its service. So long as we preserve this, God will likewise continue to extend His unconditional bond and love towards us.