King David’s Greatest Psalm

Rabbi Israel Chait

(Excerpt from Pirkei Avos shiur 1986)

Ibn Ezra writes regarding Psalm 139:

This Psalm is of great value [very honored] in the paths of God and there is not in these five books of Psalms any poem like it. And in accord with a man’s understanding in the ways of God and the ways of the soul, one should ponder its reasoning.

The Psalm says as follows:

You understand my sittings and my risings. You established all my ways before me. There is no word on my tongue; You, God, know everything. You formed me, my front and my back; You placed Your hand upon me. The knowledge is astonishing, it is too high; I am incapable of understanding. Where will I go from Your spirit and where can I escape from before You? If I ascend to Heaven, there You are, if I descend to the netherworld, there You are. If I take flight with dawn even at the ends of the ocean, Your hand leads me, Your right hand will hold me….

I will praise You for Your astonishing works, my soul understands very well.

King David goes on to say that God has knowledge of every aspect of his existence. He expresses how valuable God’s friendship is to him.

What is the meaning of this poem? Rabbeinu Yona says on “Man is exacted without his knowledge” that people complain that their suffering is unjust. Rabbeinu Yona says that this is the worst state as one does not recall the sin that earned his suffering. What is the essence of Rabbeinu Yona’s metaphor? Man sees the world in two frameworks. In one framework, he functions as a pleasure seeker. The store represents the satisfaction of one’s fantasies. The shopper tries not to be concerned about the price of his purchases, for that is a painful element. So, he represses the price he must pay, which explains why people run up so much debt. People are in denial about their ultimate obligation to pay. This is not the state of mind of the shopper alone, but of people in general and how they look at life. That’s why Rabbeinu Yona says that the fool thinks the reason for life is solely to attain pleasure.

Then Rabbeinu Yona describes those who are punished without knowledge, who feel their punishment or suffering is unjustified, and so they die without repentance. What is the connection between the pleasure seeker and the feeling of unjustified suffering?

Rabbeinu Yona explains the psychology of the pleasure seeker. His mindset is maintained because he can’t recognize that he did something wrong, which stems from narcissism. This element defends all of man’s feelings and strivings as just and correct. Narcissism maintains a flawless self-image where one cannot perceive any wrong in himself. There is a tremendous need to love the self. Self-love becomes identified with self-seeking, so that the pleasure seeker is an expression of self-love in the first instance. As such, how does the self-loving pleasure-seeking shopper overcome the painful reality of the price of his pleasurable purchases? His narcissism enables him to deny the reality of payment. This narcissism maintains the person as a pleasure seeker. As one is a pleasure seeker and he comes to terms with the reality that he must pay for his pleasures, what new direction in life should he take? He must follow reasoning and view himself as a small entity in the scheme of reality. His life is brief. With this perspective, one no longer gives any significance to whether or not he enjoyed this or that pleasure. His sense of value now detaches from the self, and attaches to the grand picture. One’s intelligence thereby turns on the pleasure seeker [part of his personality], which is a narcissistic function: an overestimation of the self. Once one steps out of the state [of narcissism] by seeing the larger picture, the self becomes very small. Whether he had a pleasure today or not becomes an insignificant matter.

What is the meaning of King David’s Psalm 139? A pleasure-seeking person views himself as distinct from God. The pleasure seeker views God as a source of obligations. At times, he cannot live with the idea of God constantly in his presence; it is disturbing. He feels he is doing things that take him away from God [he feels conflict that he cannot avoid God]. God becomes to him as something to which he approaches, but from which he also wants to withdraw. This is not a description of one who worships God from love. This idea of escaping from God was expressed by the Jews at Sinai: “And you [Moshe] speak to us” (Deut. 5:24). Rashi says, “Moshe became weak like a woman.” Rashi meant that he became incapacitated: Moshe wanted the Jews to worship God out of love [and not push God aside by asking Moshe to be an intermediary]. One who worships God out of love is a person who is constantly in God’s presence. One who worships God based on fear cannot envision himself as always in God’s presence; it is too disturbing psychologically. This Psalm describes a man who never withdraws from God: 

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I escape? If I go to the heavens, there You are. If I go to the netherworld, there You are.

King David depicts a person who is constantly in awe of God. There is not a moment that he is removed from God. This is the highest level; this is the one who worships God out of love. On this level, the self is gone, and one is enveloped by God. He is always involved in the appreciation of God’s wisdom. Even in the appreciation of his own self, he sees God’s wisdom: 

My front and my back You formed; You lay your hand on me. It is beyond my knowledge, it is a mystery, I cannot fathom it.

And this is the very point of the statement, “For my sake was the world created.” This tanna [mishnaic author] did not say this as a pleasure seeker. Rather, because he experienced the level that human perfection could reach; he was awed by how God created man to live such a good existence. The tanna’s experience was converted into an appreciation for God. His own personal pleasures were meaningless and nonsensical. The appreciation of God’s wisdom, how man was created to appreciate that wisdom, and what perfection of man is, are all astonishing. The knowledge that is involved in the entire universe awes such a perfect person. Perfected man stands in awe of God for his external physical universe and for His design of man as well [his inner world]. Man is called a miniature world for in man’s design itself exists a world of wisdom, and it reflects the wisdom of the cosmos because there is an interrelation between the cosmos and man. Perfected man becomes so removed from himself that he views himself as an object of appreciation reflecting God’s wisdom.

 This lesson of Psalm 139 contains similar ideas to the metaphor of the storekeeper: to teach man to rise from the level of the pleasure seeker where he views himself distinct from God and endows himself with great importance, and reaches the level of reality where he sees himself as a wondrous creature of God, and in perceiving himself he perceives God’s greatness. This is the praise to God in Psalm 139 and indeed this is what Psalms is all about. It’s not so much the ideas, as these ideas are found elsewhere, but Psalms represents the perfect state and attitude of the perfected man. Therefore, the ideas of course are important, but the focus is not the ideas alone but how they affect an individual and how they place one in a frame of mind.

This is based on the idea stated earlier: Judaism is not just a logical system of ethics, rather Judaism says it is important to identify states of perfection and what is involved in those states. Here, Judaism differs from all of the philosophies [providing experience and examples]. This is what Psalms is about.

This is the institution of the Nazirite, one who abstains from pleasure. Why does the gemara say that the Nazarite is a sinner and must bring a sacrifice? It is because that is not the perfect state. In the ultimate state, one does not need to deny himself anything. Denial is necessary on the road to perfection, but it is not perfection in itself. In the perfected state, there is indifference to the pleasures because one is not self-seeking. But he is also not involved in denial. One’s instincts still exist in the perfect state, but they seek what is natural: “The righteous man eats to satisfy his soul” (Proverbs 13:25). The righteous man does not eat for the pleasure of the food but to sustain his soul. Maimonides wrote a book for the Sultan, on the preservation of youth. He says that the only happy person is one who is philosophically perfected. He tries to impress upon the Sultan that happiness is achieved only with philosophical perfection and he calls that state the “even keel.” In that state are neither great pleasures nor great disappointments.