By YEHOSHUA SISKIN
One of the customs instituted by the Ba'al Shem Tov - that continues among certain Hassidim until today - was for people to read, throughout the year, the psalm that corresponded to their age plus one. If you were 40 years old, for example, you would read the 41st psalm every day until you turned 41, at which point you would start a daily reading of the 42nd psalm. Naturally, the psalm you read in any particular year would be unerringly pertinent to what was happening in your life at that time.
Thus, since the modern state of Israel, the Third Jewish Commonwealth, is 57 years old, it would be appropriate to examine Psalm 58 for any messages that might illuminate the current situation, while offering solace and guidance for the future.
In verse three of Psalm 58, we read ba'aretz hamas. Ba'aretz means "in the land" and hamas has connotations of skullduggery, robbery and violence. In other words, a spirit of calculating criminality stalks the land.
Hamas, however, has more subtle permutations than you might think. It is a form of violence which, according to Sforno and Radak, may masquerade as legal force. This sort of hamas is disguised as pure justice, as though - paraphrasing the psalmist - "it had been impartially weighed and measured on a scale."
The psalmist, however, referencing the interrupted growth of thorny plants, has complete confidence that the evildoers will soon be vanquished. Before the dangerous plotters develop into even worse criminals, God will take care of them: "Before tender briars develop into hardened thorns... He (God) will destroy them in a whirlwind."
Visions of prickly tumbleweeds - detached, lifeless, and somersaulting across the windswept earth - come to mind. Where plants are concerned, dry desert wind, known in this part of the world as sharav or hamsin, can be as fatal as any drought. Normally, there is a thin, invisible layer of water vapor that hovers around plant leaves, the result of water transport from soil to root to stem to leaf and, finally, out into the atmosphere. The cells inside a leaf are saturated with water vapor while the surrounding air is invariably drier. By diffusion, water is constantly moving from leaf pores, which open in response to light, into the air immediately beyond the leaf's boundaries. The resulting water vapor around each leaf serves as a sort of protective wet blanket. However, the dry desert wind, as it blows away this microscopically thin yet crucial moisture layer, can quickly desiccate and kill a plant. That is why it may be necessary to water plants often during windy weather, even when temperatures are cool.
In Psalm 58, the ultimate personification of evil is an atad, or thorn bush. This dubious distinction of the atad - an evil, calculating presence - is echoed in Yotam's parable (Judges 9:8-15). The trees decide to anoint a king to rule over them. First they go to the olive tree and ask him to be king but he demurs, saying he is not meant to rule trees but rather to provide oil through which both man and God are honored. Next the fig tree is approached, but he also declines kingship, saying his task in life is to provide sweet nourishment, but not to govern. Then the grapevine is asked to be king, but instead proudly speaks of the happiness he brings to God and men, which is surely preferable to being king.
Finally, the trees offer the thorn bush the chance to be king. A thorn bush does not produce fruit, has no obvious practical value and would be thoroughly elevated by accepting the highest royal office. However, the crafty atad, aware of its meager gifts and unsavory reputation, questions the sincerity of the other trees with a chilling response: "If you really want me to be king, cover yourselves in my shade, but if your offer is insincere, let fire issue from me and consume the cedars of Lebanon."
The atad is nobody's fool. Its supposed readiness to gather other trees in its shade is a sham since, as a bush, it is shorter in stature than every tree. So all that remains is its fiery potential and destructive force.
In this political season, we can learn something from Yotam's parable. Those best qualified to lead, the first choices of the people, are too busy living productive lives to waste their efforts in the political arena. Politicians, all too frequently, seem to be individuals who, like a thorn bush, have no useful assets or productive talents, and are the last people we would ask to rule over us.
Still, thorny plants have some utility as living fences. Bougainvillea, pyracantha, and many cacti make an excellent protective screen. Sour oranges and lemons are famous for their spines and the trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata) is so covered with thorns that it has been used as a barrier around military installations in some countries.
At the end of Psalm 58, we are assured that there is "fruit for the righteous." In the Torah, whenever the word fruit (pri) is used in the sense of reward, the compensation is meant to be immediate. The Talmud teaches, for instance, that those who honor their parents, demonstrate kindness and hospitality and bring peace between husband and wife, eat and enjoy the fruits of these acts here and now, "in this world."
Just as those who plot evil are destroyed as quickly as young shoots are withered by a desiccating wind, those who do good should not have to wait long to taste the fruits of their efforts.
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