Psalms are the 150 poems which praise, beseech, thank, or express intense fear and love for G-d. Psalms depicts in majestic and flawless Hebrew real, yet great, people living their real lives. These great people are described as growing, learning, and coming to grips with a world under the rule of a perfect and all-knowing G-d.
How does one recover from a spiritual fall?
How should we react to our enemies’ attacks?
Where does personal initiative leave off and faith take over?
How does one train oneself to appreciate how much one owes one’s G-d… and how does one properly thank Him? These are some of the questions that are dealt with in the pages of Psalms.
Who wrote Psalms? King David, right? Partly right. Our rabbis tell us (see Talmud Bavli, Bava Basra 14b) that David wrote the book based on his own experiences along with the contributions of other great Jewish figures (including Adam – the first man – and Moses).
Who was David? It would be very unfair to paint the builder of Jerusalem and the author of Psalms with the same brush you’d use for any other warrior-king. In other words, the popular image of David as a great fighter and lover doesn’t seem true in light of the evidence:
Our rabbis tell us that David was the greatest Torah scholar of his generation. He was the man to whom the most complicated legal questions were brought. This king pushed away sleep and personal physical enjoyment and rose each night at midnight to pray privately to G-d and then to study His Torah. When he was needed at court or in some meeting, we are told that King David would start out with the best of intentions, but instead his feet would carry him to the place of his first love: the hall of Torah study. King David was also the man chosen by G-d to lead the Jewish nation to the spiritual heights of Divine service. One of his descendents is destined to be the Messiah. This is a different David from the popular image…
Given the qualities of the author/editor of Psalms, the intense personal nature of the poems and the beauty of the Hebrew, it’s no wonder that Psalms is as popular as it is. For centuries, Jews have turned to Psalms to give voice to their deepest feelings, both in times of great trouble and of great happiness. Psalms can unlock our hearts and draw us up towards their exalted greatness. This is a book worthy of our attention; both academic and emotional!
Proverbs, we are told by our Rabbis, was the second of three books written by King Solomon (Shlomo). King Solomon was the son of King David. In his youth, he wrote the eternally optimistic (and deeply symbolic) “Song of Songs”. In mid life, he penned this book, filled with invaluable practical advise. In his declining years, perhaps a bit cynical about life, Solomon wrote “Ecclesiastes”.
A superficial reading of Proverbs might leave someone scratching his head “What’s the big deal? Just some guy telling me to stay away from suspicious women and not to worship idols… nothing I’m so interested in anyway!” It might become boring too, because of the repetition. It’s chapter after chapter of the same stuff.
That is why it’s not a good idea to read this book superficially. As a matter of fact, it is not a good idea to read any part of the Torah superficially. The books of the Tanach (Bible) are infinitely deep. They were written to be meaningful to many different types of people in many generations. Therefore, the meaning isn’t always going to be as clear and one-dimensional as an article in the sports pages of the local newspaper. If this is expected, the book will recieve a lot more respect.
We should also remember who wrote this book. Solomon was the man G-d Himself called the “wisest of all men” (see I Kings). Would it be expected to have as easy a time reading a research paper by Albert Einstein as it would the comics? Knowing that G-d never said about Einstein that he was the “wisest of all men”, logic tells us that it’s worth putting some effort into Proverbs (not to mention the Talmud and all other works of wise men).
And now we come to the point of asking, “So, what’s Proverbs really about?” We could say that Proverbs is a credit course in common sense. Much can be learned about the human mind by thinking about why two particular ideas were placed next to each other; why this verse would have been just like the last one… except for that small, almost insignificant difference and what the words actually mean. One can learn how to decide logically between two choices, how to make use of experience to avoid repeating mistakes and from what to stay away while chasing after a goal (especially the goal of Torah-observance).
This course in common sense also has wonderful teachers available to help us along. We are in good hands if we use commentaries like those of the Vilna Gaon and the Malbim (the latter has been translated to English, under the title “The Malbim on Mishlei” – Feldheim Publ.).
Job is a book that ranks as one of the most difficult books in theTanach (Bible), for two reasons:
1. Its incredibly complex and obscure Hebrew – allowing for multiple translations and meanings.
2. The complex and delicate nature of the subject matter.
Like anything in life, the reward for success reflects the amount of effort put in. Therefore, there must be a lot to gain from the deep study of the book of Job.
The story of Job is very simple: it is a conversation between G-d and one of His loyal angels (called: Satan). Satan claims that Job isn’t such a great servant, and that he only serves G-d because he is wealthy and things are always going his way. G-d gives Satan the right to test Job, saying “do anything to him, but don’t take his life.” And so in a very short time, Job’s immense wealth disappears, his seven sons die and Job himself is afflicted with a painful disease.
That is the basic story. The final 38 (out of 40) chapters of the book detail Job’s response to what has happened, his conversations with his friends. Finally, G-d’s answers the main question of the book: how could such a thing have befallen a righteous person? In other words: why do bad things happen to good people? Is G-d really in control of this world? Is He just?
So what’s the Jewish answer to those famous questions? Job’s friends suggest that perhaps Job isn’t as clean as he thinks he is, maybe there’s some sin for which G-d is now punishing him.
According to Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the 12th Century commentator known as the Ramban), that answer would have been a good enough for most of the world. There are very few people who go through life with absolutely no sin, and G-d, who is in charge of this world, and is a just judge, most definitely punishes.
But according to the Ramban, this answer won’t answer Job’s question, because he really was clean. When G-d finally spoke to Job at the end of the book He answered differently: In essence, He told Job that “I am G-d, and you are only a tiny, finite human being – you can’t possibly hope to understand the way I run My world. Everything I do is just, even if you can’t see the justice.”
Read the Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the book of Job for a deeper understanding of how Job’s lot was truely just. The bottom line in Jewish thought is: G-d runs the world, He is just and everything that happens is just… even though we can’t always see how that is so.
Song of Songs is different from any other book in Tanach (the Bible). Our rabbis describe other books as “Kodesh” – holy, and Song of Songs as “Kodesh Kodashim” – holy of holies. What’s the difference between this book and the rest of the Bible? The other works have, despite their infinite depths of meaning, a simple, surface interpretation. Song of Songs, however, has no simple meaning. It’s all hidden.
It’s true that you can read the words of Song of Songs and come away with the feeling that you’ve just read something intelligible. When reading the words themselves, you might think that this book is a love story… But that can’t have been the point. Why would King Solomon – the wisest of all men – write such a mundane thing? Why would G-d want such a thing placed among His holy books? And why would generations of Jews bother reading it (not to mention write huge commentaries on it)?
Song of Songs has many levels of meaning, but it’s safe to say that the overall theme is of the relationship between G-d and His chosen nation, the Jews. That being said, it must be nearly impossible to see that theme in the words themselves without the help of the classic commentators. It is customary to read Song of Songs in the Synagogue on the Shabbos during the intermediate days of Passover.
Ruth is the story of Naomi, a Jewish woman who ended up with two non-Jewish daughters-in-law. When her two sons died, Naomi, herself the widow of one of the Judaism’s leading figures, decided to return to the land of Israel which she had left years before. The two young Moabite women who had married Naomi’s sons wanted to return with her – essentially, to convert to Judaism and remain with the mother-in-law they loved.
Despite Naomi’s efforts to talk them out of the move, one of the women, Ruth, insisted and indeed converted. Their lives were difficult, as the economic climate of Israel was not much better than it had been when Naomi had left the first time. With nowhere else to turn, Ruth was sent to collect the grain that was left in the fields of wealthier Jewish farmers as required by Jewish law.
While in the field of that generation’s Judge and leader, Boaz, Ruth’s unusual character was noticed and events led to her eventual marriage to Boaz himself. The final passage on the book describes how King David was descended from that couple. Thus, the book of Ruth provides us with a picture of the origins and some of the background to the eventual greatness of our greatest king.
It is customary to read Ruth in the Synagogue on the second morning of the holiday of Shavuos.
Lamentations is a book written by the prophet Jeremiah. It describes the destruction of both the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of its people. The book was actually written prophetically some years before the destruction of the first Temple as a warning to the Jewish people. Tragically, the warning wasn’t heard and instead, the book became a commemoration.
Lamentations is read in Synagogues on the fast of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av – usually falling some time in the mid-summer), the anniversary of the destruction of both the first (422 BCE / 3338) and second (68 CE / 3828) Temples.
Lamentations is much more than just an historical account of the military assault against the city of Jerusalem. Lamentations projects the pain and desperation of a nation cast off by G-d. Jews around the world and in every generation (including ours) sit on the floor and cry bitter tears while listening to Lamentations’ mournful tune. The loss of our Temple and holy land is a real loss for our people… and our real pain tells us that we haven’t given up hope for its return.
Ecclesiastes was the third and final book written by King Solomon (Shlomo). It was written towards the end of his life when he had perhaps become a bit jaded and cynical about many of the silly things people do to achieve “success.” As with many other books of Tanach (the Bible), Ecclesiastes gives the casual reader the impression of chaos and repetition. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of an order to the work. One might think that it is limited to random mutterings and complaints.
Just as serious study of the other books of Tanach (the Bible) can wash away that first impression, so can Ecclesiastes be understood and appreciated only after making an investment of effort. A close examination of the work with the help of one of the classic commentators will reveal that Solomon has addressed many of the most important issues in Jewish philosophy:
The relationship between destiny and free will
Providence and effort
Reward and punishment
Ecclesiastes has shown us the Jewish path to living in peace with each of these concepts.
Solomon also uses his vast personal (and often bitter) experience to teach us about the emptiness of a life devoted to the search for physical comfort. We can believe what Solomon says, because his immense wealth was nearly unmatched. If anyone could say “I’d tried this world and it’s not worth it,” it was this man. As he says, there is nothing eternal, nothing of lasting value “beneath the sun” (i.e. rooted in this world). Our effort should be well spent “beyond the sun,” in the study of Torah and observance of G-d’s commandments.
In most Synagogues, Ecclesiastes is read on the Shabbos during the intermediate days of Succos. This comes out during harvest time – a time when we are most likely to be impressed with physical, this-worldly success.
The book of Esther contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and that is when there is a Mitzva (commandment) to read the scroll in public.
The setting for the story was the Persian empire. It was the last few years of the 70 years between the destruction of the first Temple (422 BCE/ 3338) and the building of the second. Achashverosh (Xerxes) was the man at the top of the young empire. His rule stretched from India in the east to the western Mediterranean. Virtually the whole known world stood under his domination – including nearly every Jew alive at the time. There’s a great danger in having all the eggs in one basket (in other words having all the Jews under the rule of one man). What would happen if someone dropped the basket?
Well that’s exactly what nearly happened. Haman held the position of Prime Minister, second in power only to the King himself. To say that Haman was not a great friend of the Jews would be an understatement. In one way or another, Haman received permission from the king to kill every Jew in the empire on one day (the 13th of the month of Adar). Nearly one year before the date of execution, Haman sent secret orders to the governors of each of the empire’s many provinces – orders that were not to be opened until the appointed day. Being a very suspicious man, Haman kept the whole affair as quiet as possible, not wanting to give the Jews an opportunity to upset his plans… However, three things occurred at or before the birth of Haman’s plan that would have a great effect on the outcome:
1. The king, in a drunken rage, killed his (main) wife, Vashti, and replaced her by way of a high-stakes beauty pageant. The new Queen was a Jewess named Esther (although no one at the time knew she was Jewish).
2. Mordechai (a member of the Sanhedrin and Esther’s uncle) happened to find out about Haman’s plan and began to act against it.
3. Mordechai also happened to overhear details of a plot to kill the King – and warned the King, saving his life.
It was these three things that spelled the end of Haman’s plan. Esther’s relationship with the King, Haman’s uncontrollable hatred for Mordechai (the king’s savior) and the cooperation of Esther and her uncle all brought about the downfall of Haman and the salvation of the Jews.
That’s the story. But the story itself is not the essence of the book of Esther. There are many wonderful events in our history that bear repeating, but they weren’t necessarily included in Tanach (the Bible). In the eyes of our rabbis, there’s something more to the story of Purim.
Every single event of the book can have a purely rational explanation. It is possible, in the natural course of things, that Esther, the Jewess, was chosen from all the thousands of women to be the King’s wife; it is possible that Mordechai could have accidentally heard of Haman’s plan to kill the Jews, and of the plot to kill Achashverosh; it is possible that Haman could have just happened to have such a strong hatred for Mordechai… and then just happened to have arrived in the King’s bedroom as the King was thinking about honoring that same Mordechai. All of these things are believable in a natural context. But how likely is it that they should ALL happen, and at just the right time?
The book of Esther, therefore, is the story of the quiet, invisible hand of G-d in history. The book is an expression of our belief in G-d’s directing control in all human activities. Add up all the coincidences in this book (or in your own lives!) and you’ll sometimes see how it just doesn’t add up.
So that’s the story. But there’s one more thing. Why did G-d have to allow the Jews to get into such hot water… only to bail them out with such an impressive succession of quiet miracles? Wouldn’t it have been better to kill baby Haman in his crib or something like that?
The answer, our rabbis tell us, is that the Jews of that generation needed this trouble to inspire them to see the hand of G-d, and to return to a greater level of Mitzva-observance.
Thus, Mordechai’s response to the crisis makes sense. Did he organize mass rallies outside the Persian embassy? How about a petition? Letter-bomb campaign? Nope. He “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes (signs of mourning)… and he cried a great and bitter cry” (Esther 4 1). He arranged that in every province to which news reached, there was “great mourning among the Jews and fasting and crying….” Why does someone fast if not to impress Someone Above (G-d). What’s the best way to impress Him? Teshuva – repentance and honest change. Now that you have the whole story of Purim, everything else is just detail.
Daniel was one of Israel’s most promising young leaders. He was taken to serve the Babylonian king in Babylonia even before the destruction of the first Temple (422 BCE/ 3338).
Despite having to spend so many of his best years in the close company of violent and corrupt idol worshipers, Daniel remained true to the religion of his fathers. Not only that, but he actually excelled to the point where he merited to receive prophecy.
His relationship with G-d was apparent in more than one way. Daniel was able to interpret the dream of Nevudchadnezzer (see Daniel 2)- a dream that contained a vision of the world’s future until the end of time. He was also able to interpret the “handwriting on the wall” that appeared before the Babylonian king, Belshazzar (see Daniel 5). In addition, he had a number of visions of his own, many of which also concerned the end of time (and the coming of the Messiah).
All the secrets of the world’s history (and future) are here in the book of Daniel. But not all the secrets are open for just anyone to see. For one thing, a large portion of the book is written in difficult and sometimes ambiguous Aramaic, rather than the Hebrew of the rest of Tanach (the Bible). The book was purposely written so that it would not be too easy for anyone to get too much classified information. It’s all there, but you need the key to unlock the doors.
If you count up the books of the Tanach you will see that there are 24 books in Tanach (the Bible). This is true only if you count Ezra and Nehemia together as one book. These days, you’ll usually see these two books printed separately, but our rabbis tell us that the greater part of both books was written by Nehemia. Hence these books would have originally been printed as one book with one title – “Nehemia”.
Why was it later “divided?” According to the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 93b) Nehemia “lost” half of his book due to some tiny mistake in judgement; an ill-chosen word. This is an example of how G-d is most particular with those whom He is closest with.
Either way, the books of Ezra and Nehemia are accounts of the return of many Jews from their exile in Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple. As much as the books tell of the rebirth of the Jewish state, they also discuss the many hurdles that had to be overcome in that process.
Of the many tens of thousands of Jews in Babylonia and neighboring countries, very few actually listened to Ezra’s call, and the new community was sorrowfully small. Samaritans constantly attacked the Jews with arrows and swords, hoping to force them to give up the building. Eventually, the Samaritans slandered the Jews before the King, and asked him to force the Jews to stop building their Temple. It would be years before the work on the city walls and the Temple would continue.
All of the delays and disappointments discouraged the settlers.That, along with a leadership void during the time that Ezra was out of the country, caused a serious weakness in Mitzva (commandment) observance. The point was reached where there were Jews who actually intermarried with the neighboring tribes!
When the Temple was finally completed, it was a only a subdued celebration. The songs of joy were drowned out by the cries of sadness from those who still remembered the grandeur of the first Temple. But the Temple was completed nevertheless, and this second Temple would serve the Jewish people for 420 years.
Note: as to Ramban’s “Temple hold-up ” – see Bamidbar (16, 21) – the Jews’ failure to ask…
Chronicles is perhaps the most misleading of the books of Tanach (the Bible) – not to mention the one who’s name is the hardest to spell. Opening the book at random will reveal a page full of nothing but names followed by more names: This person was the son of that father and in turn had these children of his own. Those passages which aren’t straight lists seem to be simply reruns of the stories from the rest of Tanach (the Bible).
But it is just this book of Chronicles – and a passage seemingly the least likely to hold any deep meaning – that our rabbis chose as an example of the iceberg-like relationship between the Written and the Oral Torah (see Pesachim 62b). While that which lies above the surface (the written passage itself) seems to tell the whole, simple story, the explanation that the oral Torah adds could fill ocean-depths.
If one could pick a single theme to cover Chronicles, it would be the idea repeated in the commentary of Rashi throughout the book: The purpose of the whole book, from beginning to end, is to honor the house of King David. So much of the narrative can be related to David’s origins (both their exalted and their humble, cloudy sides), the nation he led, and his career as the king. The book ends with a description of the destruction of the nation and the city that David had built. In a sense is was the partial undoing of much of his life’s work.
We know, of course, that the destruction of the first Temple was not the end of King David’s story – as we still await our redemption through his descendent. Chronicles, the great praise of his kingdom, is testimony to the huge role that this family played and still plays in Judaism.