Shiur #21: "Nafshi" and "Ani" - Psalm 131 According to A.L. Strauss (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet





Lecture 21: "NAFSHI" AND "ANI"


Rav Elchanan Samet





              (1)     A Song of Ascents of David.


                        O Lord,

1                      My heart was not haughty,

                        Nor were my eyes lofty.


2                      And I did not occupy myself with great things,

                        Or with things beyond my power.


3            (2)     Surely ("im lo," lit. "if not") I composed

                        And stilled my soul.


4                      Like a weaned child beside its mother:

                        My soul is to me like a weaned child.


              (3)     Israel, hope for the Lord,

                        From now and for ever.


            Even in the case of a psalm with only three verses, it is necessary to mark off the "poem" within the psalm. We have transcribed our psalm here at the beginning of this section, in poetic form, with short lines and divided into stanzas, just as Strauss transcribed the psalm at the beginning of his article. Yet, there are several differences between the two transcriptions. Wishing to deal exclusively with the "poem" in the psalm, Strauss did not copy the heading, "A Song of Ascents of David."  Neither did he record the word of invocation, "Lord," at the beginning of the psalm, nor verse 3 at the end of the psalm ("Israel, hope for the Lord, from now and for ever"). In contrast, it is my practice to bring the psalm in its entirety, as it appears in the book of Tehilim, even when it is clearly evident that the heading is not part of the psalm itself. The same applies, sometimes, to the concluding formula of the psalm.[11]


            Let us examine Strauss's considerations in approaching the task of delimiting the poem within the psalm:[12]


The invocation to God at the beginning of the Masoretic text of the psalm, and the call at the end, "Israel, hope for the Lord, from now and for ever," are outside the exceedingly personal and intimate substantive framework of the psalm, and also outside its rhythmic framework (two-leveled stanzas of two lines each). The concluding call is comprised of two "wandering formulas": "Israel, hope for the Lord" (compare Tehilim 130:4) and "from now and for ever" (compare Tehilim 113:2, and many other places in Tehilim, Yeshayahu and Mikha). The psalmist himself or one of the admirers of his work who added the opening invocation and the concluding call, which he borrowed from a storehouse of ready expressions, apparently wanted to dedicate this work to his God and suit it to the needs of the holy service. If this hypothesis is correct, it is indeed possible to preserve this dedication as an introduction and conclusion to a chapter in the book of Tehilim. But anyone wishing to appreciate the poem as a poem must remove it from this wrapping and consider it in its original form.


            It seems to me that Strauss's argument is persuasive with regard to the call that concludes our psalm (verse 3): this conclusion is not part of the body of the poem, but rather it was added for one reason or another.


            However, with respect to the address directed at God at the beginning of the psalm, I strongly disagree with Strauss's position. While it is true that this address stands outside the rhythmic framework and parallelism of stanza 1, it seems to me that another example of this phenomenon is found at the beginning of psalm 6:


O Lord,

Do not punish me in Your anger,

And do not chastise me in Your wrath.


            Would Strauss put forward a similar argument regarding Psalm? Surely that would be absurd! The fact is that this phenomenon is prevalent throughout the book of Tehilim – the petitioner opens by invoking God, and this invocation, owing to its importance, is located outside the rhythmic framework and parallelism of the first stanza.[13]


            Strauss's second argument is that the address to God is "outside the exceedingly personal and intimate substantive framework of the psalm."[14] This argument can certainly not be accepted: there is nothing more intimate, in the book of Tehilim or elsewhere in Scripture, than a conversation between a petitioner and his God. Psalm 131 expresses this in the most vigorous manner.


            The implication of Strauss's view on this matter is essentially that we are dealing here with a secular lyrical poem, written by an early Hebrew poet for himself, the same way a modern poet would write such a poem. Only after the poem had been written in a secular-humanist context, "the psalmist himself or one of the admirers of his work who added the opening address… wanted to dedicate this work to his God and suit it to the needs of the holy service."


            It seems to me that Strauss's position is anachronistic. It is doubtful whether there existed in Israel during the biblical period (and even much later) secular lyric poetry written neither in a religious context  - as a prayer to God, nor in a moral context – as a call to man to mend his ways.


            Our reservations regarding Strauss's position have no consequences with respect to the rest of the analysis of the poem. But this disagreement, even if not technically literary, is meta-literary, and impacts upon each and every word of the poem. Was the poem uttered as a confession before God, or are we dealing merely with the poetic reflections between the author and himself?


            Let me summarize by saying that in my opinion the address directed at God at the beginning of the poem is a vital and original part of the poem itself, and is what defines the poem as a religious poem – as man's intimate confession before God.




Strauss prefaces his analysis of our psalm with a short but crucial poetic introduction that is essential for the analysis of our psalm. It is fitting that Strauss's words be cited in their original formulation:[15]


In everyday speech and also in scientific language, words are used to teach us the conceptual content of what is being said, and once they have filled that role, they are ready to be forgotten, provided that their content is remembered. In contrast, poetic language is not prepared to pass from the world after it has filled the role of conveying specific ideas, for it is not merely a means. It wishes to exist like a body to the contents, and the contents wish to exist in it like a soul. The poem strengthens the body of words through its composition and meter, and fortifies it so that it will not be forgotten. In this new and vital context, the contents are no longer the same contents and the words are no longer the same words as in ordinary non-poetic language.


            Now Strauss narrows this poetic discussion to the meaning of negatives in prose as opposed to their meaning in poetry:


This unique character of poetic language is particularly striking regarding the function of negation. In non-poetic language negation comes to deny a certain idea, to refute it, and thereby to clear the way for an affirmative idea. Negation in poetry sets the negated idea against the affirmed idea in the body of the poem as an inseparable part of it. A disharmonic relationship is created between the two concepts, a relationship of opposition, or even of struggle.


            How do these ideas apply to our psalm?


            The first two stanzas in our psalm are marked by a threefold negation:


(Lo) My heart was not haughty,

(Ve-lo) Nor were my eyes lofty.

(Ve-lo) And I did not occupy myself with great things…


            What is the significance of this vigorous negation? This is Strauss's explanation:


The subject of the poem is the soul that makes peace with its limitations and accepts them; its nature and its yearnings are appropriately matched. According to the logical sense of the words of the poem, the "I" had always been in this state of peace and harmony, but this is not the case according to their poetic content.

Had the poet wished to convey to us the peace and quiet following from the logical sense of the words also in the poem's artistic form, he should have altogether refrained from mentioning the haughty heart and occupation with great things. By negating them, he does not distance them from his path in the way that non-poetic language would. On the contrary, he arouses within us the memory of these sins, and through the rhythmic language he solidifies this memory in our imagination, so that it cannot be forgotten. This fills the entire first half of the poem. The word "no" comes to express tension regarding the negated item, but not to remove it from the body of the work. In other words, the internal form of our psalm does not speak of peace that was a given from the beginning, but rather of peace that was achieved through struggle: My heart had become haughty – but I put it down!




Strauss's previous comments serve now as the basis for a discussion about the composition of the poem – the relationship between its parts and the way in which they are organized:


Now we can understand the composition: In the first two stanzas the "no" fights against those forces that are liable to disturb the soul's peace and breach its boundaries.

The word "no" is also found in stanza 3, but its meaning has changed. The expression, "im lo," is a remnant from an oath formula: "God do so to me, and more also, if you be not… ("im lo") (II Shemuel 19:14, and many similar verses).[16] According to the original meaning of the words, the poet swears that indeed he has composed and stilled his soul, but by using these words, the oath is weakened and it turns into a rhetorical promise; the internal struggle remains, like one who is trying to overcome doubt. The truth of the matter is not yet self-evident. Our poet's ingenious novelty is his use of this form as a poetic transition from the "no" to the "yes," for the "no" itself turns into a "yes."

It is only in the final stanza that expression is given to the soul's tranquility in the quiet confidence of pure affirmation.[17]

And so, the forms of absolute negation, negation denoting affirmation, and absolute affirmation follow one after the other as linguistic symbols of war, of victory and of peace, the three stations of the dramatic process that lies both concealed and manifest in the simple words of our poem.


            According to Strauss, stanza 3 serves as a stylistic transition from stanzas 1-2 to stanza 4: it still uses the word "no" (the fourth instance), but the meaning of this "no" in the expression "im lo" which denotes an oath is a vigorous "yes": the "no" itself turns into a "yes."


            According to this, our psalm is divided into two halves. In stanzas 1-2, the psalmist describes what he did not do, how he did not sin. In contrast, stanzas 3-4 describes his affirmative action ("I composed and stilled my soul") and its consequence (the soul's enrapture with the "I" like a weaned child beside its mother).


            Are these two halves of the psalm equal in length? The answer to this question is yes: 11 words in the first half (6 in stanza 1 and 5 in stanza 2) and 11 words in the second half (5 in stanza 3 and 6 in stanza 4).


(To be continued.)


(Translated by David Strauss)

[11] The fact that I follow the Masoretic text leads to several other differences between my transcription and Strauss's:

1)     Strauss refrained from noting the division into verses, whereas I note the verses (in addition to the division into stanzas).

2)     Strauss makes use of European punctuation marks when recording the poem: At the end of stanza 3, he inserts an ellipsis and an exclamation point: "Surely I composed and stilled my soul…!" In this way he gives expression to his interpretation of this stanza, as will be explained below.

[12] The citations from Strauss's writings are taken from his book, "Be-Darkhei ha-Sifrut," and not from the booklet, "Al Shelosha Mizmorim mi-Sefer Tehilim." The text in the book was corrected and is slightly different than the text in the booklet.

[13] It is clear from an examination of the first section of the book of Tehilim (psalms 1-41) that psalms 3, 6, 7, 8, 15, 21, 22, and 38 all begin with a call to God in the opening word in the body of the psalm, and that in six of these eight psalms, the call to God is not included in the opening stanza of the psalm from the perspective of parallelism and rhythm. Nevertheless, the call undoubtedly belongs to the body of the psalm, as is clearly indicated by the psalm's contents (as in the example cited above from psalm 6). I wish to add two more notes:

1)     Mentioning God's name at the beginning of the psalm in a way that does not involve calling out to Him, but rather integrates that name into the body of the psalm, is found in other psalms (e.g.: 23, 24, 27). It may be inferred from this that opening a psalm with God’s name was conventional.

2)     In many psalms, the name of God is the second word in the psalm, apparently for the very same reason – that the name of God appear very close to the beginning of the psalm.

[14] It is possible, however, that Strauss's second argument refers exclusively to the concluding call, "Israel, hope for the Lord."

[15] In citing Strauss's words in our study, we have allowed ourselves a certain editorial freedom: we have rearranged certain sentences and paragraphs, we have divided up certain long paragraphs into shorter paragraphs, and we have put certain words into bold. All this was done for the convenience of the reader.

[16] The truth is that even the fuller formula of the oath – "God do so to me, and more also, if I do not…" – is defective: what does the person taking the oath accept upon himself that God should do to him if he fails to keep his oath? The omission of the essence of the oath stems from the fact that people do not wish to mention evil things about themselves, even when they take an oath. Therefore wherever this formula appears, we have to add three dots, "God do so to me… and more also," before the main part of the oath, "if I do not…." In one place in Tehilim we find a doubled oath formula, which includes the punishment, but does not include the introductory formula, "God do so to me… and more also." I refer to Tehilim 137: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning / let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you." (The classic example of a Scriptural oath that includes a punishment is, of course, the oath of a woman suspected of adultery; see Bamidbar 5:20-22).

[17] The early commentators understood stanzas 3-4 (= verse 2) as a single sentence expressing an oath: "Surely I composed and stilled my soul, like a weaned child beside its mother." But Strauss is right that stanza 3 stands by itself and stanza 4 stands by itself. Strauss transcribes stanza three as follows:

              "Surely I composed

              And stilled my soul…"