The Mishnah reports that Psalm 30, or at least its opening verse, was recited by the Levites when worshippers brought First Fruits:
THE FLUTE WAS PLAYING BEFORE THEM TILL THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT; AND WHEN THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT EVEN KING AGRIPPA WOULD TAKE THE BASKET AND PLACE IT ON HIS SHOULDER AND WALK AS FAR AS THE TEMPLE COURT. AT THE APPROACH TO THE COURT, THE LEVITES WOULD SING THE SONG: ‘I WILL EXTOL THEE, O LORD, FOR THOU HAST RAISED ME UP, AND HAST NOT SUFFERED MINE ENEMIES TO REJOICE OVER ME’.
— Bikkurim 3:4
[not meant as shouting: all caps printers’ custom distinguishes Mishnah from Gemara]
The First Fruits ceremony also included the recitation beginning “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5-10) now included in the Passover Haggadah (Bikkurim 3:6). This passage recalls years of affliction and oppression before getting to “Now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God, have given me.” Together with Psalm 30, these verses convey the theme that all wealth, success, and well-being come from God.
Together, the “Wandering Aramean” passage and Psalm 30 warn against the kind of complacency described in Ps 30:7: “When I was well, I said, ‘Never will I falter.'” They also convey the theme that struggle, too, is part of relationship with God.
Struggle and God
Sometimes, as in the Pesach recitation, we relate what sounds like a positive conclusion to troubles that were part of a divine plan. And, in the context of First Fruits, Psalm 30 also rings a note of ultimate triumph and praise, concluding with “I will praise You forever.”
In the language of Psalm 30, however, we see at least three models of suffering and response: First, God assists before any call; next, suffering and joy are entwined in a regular cycle; finally, the psalmist calls out and God responds:
- I extol You, GOD,
for you have lifted me up,
and not let my enemies rejoice over me. (30:1)
- …One may lie down weeping at nightfall;
but at dawn there are shouts of joy. (30:5)
- …When You hid Your face, I was terrified.
I called to You, GOD; to My Lord I made appeal….
You turned my lament into dancing…(30:8-12)
God’s presence is very reassuring, while God’s absence creates panic. The psalmist shares the biblical idea that God sometimes “hides His face” from us….This hiding of God’s face may result from human misbehavior, but equally, God sometimes hides His face for no clear reason at all and needs to be “called back.”
— My People’s Prayer Book, p.195 (full citation)
In the context of the morning liturgy, any triumph over anxiety and suffering seems very fragile. We’ll be back at this spot tomorrow morning — not unlike Bill Murray repeating Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). And, in the end, this is not all that different from the recitation at First Fruits and Pesach, with its seemingly triumphant conclusion. After all, a good harvest is never guaranteed, and at least some portion of the Jewish people will likely be at a seder table again next year.
8 of Thirty on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)….apologies for days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes.
My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries
Vol. 5 — Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)
Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2001. p.195
Comment is from the “Bible” thread provided by Marc Brettler
Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University.