Thought of the Week: Resisting the emotions of Psalm 94
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 March 2016
A version of this Thought for the Week was given as the Dvar Torah on Erev Shabbat at the end of the week of the Brussels bombing, and the conviction of Radovan Karadžić.
When the mystics of Safed in the sixteenth century built Kabbalat Shabbat as a new beginning to the Shabbat evening service, they chose what are sometimes known as the enthronement psalms – psalms which express divine sovereignty over the world. These are Psalms 93-99, though they chose not to use them in that order: we start with Psalm 95 and 93 comes a bit later, after L’cha Dodi and Psalm 92.
The whole of this section of the book of Psalms is included. With one exception. We do not sing Psalm 94. Psalm 94 did not find its way into the Shabbat liturgy.
Psalm 94 begins with the words “El nikamot Adonai” – “Adonai is a God of vengeance”. It calls on God to rise up and to give the wicked their just deserts. There may be times when such emotions might have a place. Psalm 94 is included in the liturgy as one of the Psalms for a day of the week, and is even, perhaps surprisingly, in our siddur for this purpose.
But it is certainly not a Psalm for Shabbat.
As we enter Shabbat, we try to have no space for the emotions of Psalm 94. Even after a week, like last week, when we were reminded of the very worst in human behaviour – taken back to the horrors of Srebenica, seeing new horrors in Istanbul, in Brussels – we do not bring the emotion of vengeance into Shabbat
So what verses should we sing instead on this Shabbat? What verses are the antithesis of that Psalm 94 emotion which could so easily overpower us?
One is the final verse of Psalm 29, which the mystics added into the Friday night service… “Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai y’varech et amo va-shalom” – “God, give strength to Your people, God bless Your people with peace”. On this Shabbat we recognise that the blessing of peace comes hand in hand with our strength – the strength to overcome our own fears and hatred.
Another, a verse that we often sing on Erev Shabbat, is from Psalm 89: “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” – “The world is created with lovingkindness”. It is a powerful statement – that the ultimate creative act is one of love, that the world is sustained by acts of love for one another. This verse asks us to do something almost impossible – not only to act in a way that is good to each other, but to do so with love. Not only to act out of a sense of duty, but to be motivated by care and responsibility. Not merely to do justice but to build a world based on kindness. When we feel least capable, as on this Shabbat, we aspire to find in ourselves the ability to care about the other, to seek to understand what causes him or her pain, not to hate but to love.
On this Shabbat – indeed on every Shabbat – may we find the ability to resist Psalm 94, which the mystics of Safed so wisely excluded from Kabbalat Shabbat. May we find a way to feel not the desire for revenge, but the love and the strength to work for peace.