Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Buddhist Psalm

This term I'm taking a seminar-ish class on theological issues in the Hebrew Bible. The past few weeks we've been dealing with what is one of the central theological issues in any religion (but more so a monotheistic religion: theodicy. For those that don't know, theodicy deals with reconciling the image of a good and righteous God with the existence of evil in the world and why the righteous sometimes suffer and the unrighteous sometimes prosper (The term theodicy comes from the Greek θεοζ (god) + δικη (justice) and means literally "the justice of god").

As one can imagine this issue comes up many times in the text of the Tanakh and is delt with in several different ways. One of the texts we examined was Psalm 73. This psalm is a little unusual as it pretty much dismisses the problem all together. The psalmist describes how he had been righteous and faithful to God, but still had to endure suffering as though he was being punished for some sin. But instead of the expected explanation of how this suffering was not an injustice on God's part, the author dismisses it altogether in an almost Buddhist fashion:

כִּי יִתְחַמֵּץ לְבָבִי
וְכִלְיֹותַי אֶשְׁתֹּונָן׃
וַאֲנִי־בַעַר וְלֹא אֵדָע
בְּהֵמֹות הָיִיתִי עִמָּךְ׃

וַאֲנִי תָמִיד עִמָּךְ
אָחַזְתָּ בְּיַד־יְמִינִי׃
בַּעֲצָתְךָ תַנְחֵנִי
וְאַחַר כָּבֹוד תִּקָּחֵנִי׃
מִי־לִי בַשָּׁמָיִם
וְעִמְּךָ לֹא־חָפַצְתִּי בָאָרֶץ׃
כָּלָה שְׁאֵרִי וּלְבָבִי
צוּר־לְבָבִי וְחֶלְקִי אֱלֹהִים לְעֹולָם׃
כִּי־הִנֵּה רְחֵקֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ
הִצְמַתָּה כָּל־זֹונֶה מִמֶּךָּ׃
וַאֲנִי קִרֲבַת אֱלֹהִים לִי־טֹוב
שַׁתִּי בַּאדֹנָי יְהֹוִה מַחְסִי
לְסַפֵּר כָּל־מַלְאֲכֹותֶיךָ׃
תהלים עג פסוקים כא־כח

or as the English of the NJPS has it:

My mind was stripped of its reason,
my feelings were numbed.
I was a dolt without knowledge;
I was brutish toward You.

Yet I was always with You,
You held my right hand;
You guided me by Your counsel
and led me toward honor.
Whom else do I have in heaven?
And having You, I want no one on earth.
My body and mind fail;
but God is the [rock] of my mind, my portion forever.

Those who keep far from You perish;
You annihilate all who are untrue to You.
As for me, nearness to God is good;
I have made The Lord God my refuge,
that I may recount all your works.
- Psalm 73.21-28
Where others try to show what the reward for being faithful to God is, this psalmist says that being faithful to God is its own reward. That when one is near to God nothing else matters. Much in the same way Buddhism dismisses the issue of theodicy by teaching that suffering is neither just or unjust, but merely a byproduct of desire for and attachment to an illusory world, this psalm seems to say that suffering is irrelevant, because being close to God is its own reward regardless of what suffering one must endure in life.

Note: This post contains the Name of God. If you print it out, please treat it with the proper respect.


The background image on this page is a Hebrew translation of the verse from Bob Dylan's song  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), from which the title of this blog is taken. Translation courtesy of Yoram Aharon of Hod-HaSharon's page--found via YudelLine-- which has many Dylan lyrics in Hebrew.