Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 20: Grasping the Middle of the Beam

“יַעַנְךָ ה’ בְּיוֹם צָרָה, יְשַׂגֶּבְךָ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.” (תהילים כ:ב)

“May God answer you in a day of distress; may the name of Jacob’s God fortify you” (Ps. 20:2).

Why does the psalmist indicate that, in times of trouble, one should call out in ‘the name of Jacob’s God’? Why not Abraham’s God, or Isaac’s God?

The Sages taught that the verse mentions Jacob because “The owner of a beam should grasp it by its thickest part” (Berachot 64a). But this statement is unclear. What does how to hold an unwieldy piece of wood have to do with Jacob and prayer in times of trouble?

The Mountain, Field, and House

Rav Kook wrote that each of the Avot had his own path in serving God. Abraham strived to teach the entire world about God. The name ‘Abraham’ means ‘the father of many nations.’ His service was embodied by a Mountain — ‘On God’s Mountain, [God] will be seen.’ The Mountain indicates an open place, inviting all people to approach.

The metaphor for Isaac’s service of God was a Field — ‘Isaac went out to meditate in the Field.’ The Field also indicates an open place without boundaries and divisions.

Jacob heralded the beginning of a new stage in the world’s spiritual development. With Jacob began the building of the Jewish people, a nation with a Divine covenant and a holy mission. His children became the twelve tribes of Israel. This was the start of a new process, the world’s elevation through the light of a holy nation. Thus Jacob’s service is compared to a House — ‘the House of Jacob’s God’ (Isaiah 2:3). Houses are defined by walls, separating those inside and those outside the structure.

Two Paths

Now we may understand what it means to call out in ‘the name of Jacob’s God.’

We may draw close to God in two ways. The first path is to approach God through the universal ideals that connect every human soul to its Maker. This path may be referred to as calling in the ‘name of the God of Abraham and Isaac.’ (A ‘name’ indicates the way we relate to others.) This is a universal path by which all peoples can relate to God. It is like the Mountain and the Field, the spiritual paths of Abraham and Isaac that are accessible to all.

The second path is to call ‘in the name of Jacob’s God.’ This means that we base our connection to God on His special relationship to the Jewish people.

So which path should one take?

The psalmist teaches that during troubled times, we should take the second path and utilize Israel’s special connection to God. At times of great need, it is best to awaken our closeness to God with those aspects that are close to the heart and the emotions. This approach will inspire an outpouring of the soul before God, with a clear knowledge that we are praying to One Who comes to the aid of those who call out to Him. By concentrating on this special connection to God — a connection fortified by holy mitzvot binding us to God’s service — the heart is filled with powerful feelings of holiness and love. We are filled with deep emotion for the God of Israel, Who drew us near to serve Him and gave us His Torah.

The universal connection of every human soul to God is a real connection, but it is of a more intellectual nature. It lacks the warmth needed to fire up the emotions and attain closeness to God — a closeness that is particularly needed in times of trouble. Unlike the more dispassionate intellect, the awakening of feelings of love and awe will have a deeper impact on our actions, as our emotions are closer to our physical side.

Holding the Middle of the Beam

Now we may understand the Talmudic metaphor of grasping a wooden beam by its thickest point. A beam (or a piece of timber) may have many parts — branches and twigs at one end, roots at the other. It is easiest to move the beam by grabbing it in the middle, at its thickest spot. So too, it is possible to relate to God from a more theoretical, universal connection — the God of Abraham and Isaac. But the psalmist advices that we should grasp, not the upper branches, but the massive trunk. We should hold on to that which is closest to us, that which most directly appeals to the heart. This is ‘the name of Jacob’s God’ — our connection to God as members of the Jewish people, faithful to His Torah and commandments.

This advice is particular relevant during times of trouble, both personal and national. At such times, we should gather under the flag of the Jewish people, renew our dedication to Torah and mitzvot, and awaken those holy emotions and thoughts that are unique to Israel. With this effort, the national soul of Israel will gain strength and power, thus advancing the universal goal of uplifting the entire world.

When the spiritual and material state of the Jewish people will be ready, the time for Abraham’s blessing will come, and “All of the families of the land will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). But in times of trouble, it is best to concentrate on our own unique spiritual heritage. This is a time to hold on to the thickest part of the tree, our emotional ties to the God of Jacob. Then we will have a better grasp on the expansive branches above — our universal ideals and aspirations — as well as the numerous roots below — the many mitzvot that are grounded in the physical realm.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II on Berachot 64a, sec. 9:356)

Sign up for weekly Dvar Torah!

Get Rav Kook’s Torah unplugged!