Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 111: The Divine in the Details

This psalm expresses our wonder at the beauty and splendor of God’s works, both in the world of nature and in the Torah. The importance of this praise of God and His works is brought to the fore in a theological dispute between Rabbi Abahu, a third-century scholar in Eretz Yisrael, and an unnamed heretic.

The Heretic’s Challenge

The Talmud (Berachot 10a) relates that a heretic once questioned Rabbi Abahu regarding the order of chapters in the book of Psalms. Why, he asked, does chapter 3 speak of the rebellion of Absalom, while chapter 57 refers to David hiding from Saul — an event that occurred many years before Absalom’s rebellion?

This was not an innocent query. The true intent of the heretic’s question was clear: he believed that there is no real order of chapters; the arrangement is happenstance. While the overall prophetic message may be divinely inspired, the details are arbitrary and unimportant, perhaps merely the result of scribal errors.

In other words, the heretic challenged the value of the inferred deductions (diyukim) in the text of the Torah. This is a far-reaching conclusion, for it denies the validity of many important laws and teachings that are derived from these details.

Semuchim — Meaning from Juxtaposition

Rabbi Abahu agreed that this question is indeed difficult for those who require a chronological order in the text. But for us, he retorted, this question poses no difficulty, since we also look for contextual connections, called semuchim. In this case, Absalom’s rebellion is located in chapter 3 in order to connect it to the subject of chapter 2, the future rebellion of Gog and Magog.

Rabbi Abahu closed his argument by demonstrating that the concept of semuchim is already mentioned in the Torah, as it says, “Steadfast (semuchim) forever, they are made in truth and uprightness” (Ps. 111:8). This proof-text, however, appears artificial. The word semuchim in the verse refers to the steadfast and eternal nature of mitzvot, not to the method of textual exegesis called semuchim!

Purpose in the Details of Creation

When we carefully examine the characteristics of living creatures, we discover that each detail — the aerodynamics of a butterfly wing, the suction-cupped tongue of a chameleon - indicates wisdom and purpose, rather than chance and randomness. This is true for the entire gamut of life in the world, from the basic needs of the simplest forms of life, to the intellectual needs of human beings. This observation is even more valid regarding that which is required for humanity’s moral and spiritual development — aspects that are infinitely more important than our natural (i.e., physical and intellectual) needs.

In short, any mechanism or means that furthers our ethical advance is a product of divine wisdom. These means are provided in order to enable our true perfection. The principal tool for humanity’s spiritual progress is the Torah and the prophetic writings. These scriptures are a beacon of light, establishing the foundations of morality and justice for the nations of the world. It is far-fetched to suppose that these crucial benefits to humanity are merely a matter of chance, even with regard to minor teachings.

Providence in the Details

Now we may better understand Rabbi Abahu’s proof from Psalm 111:

“מַעֲשֵׂי יָדָיו אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפָּט; נֶאֱמָנִים כָּל-פִּקּוּדָיו. סְמוּכִים לָעַד לְעוֹלָם; עֲשׂוּיִם בֶּאֱמֶת וְיָשָׁר.” (תהילים קי"א:ז-ח)

“The works of His hands are truth and justice; all of His precepts are faithful. They are steadfast forever; they are made in truth and uprightness.” (v.7-8)

These two verses compare the truth to be found in the details of nature to that found in the details of Torah.

The detailed workings of creation reflect divine order and purpose — “The works of his hands are truth and justice.” We should recognize that this same trait applies to the Torah, “faithful are all of His precepts,” since the Torah’s precepts promote the development of our moral and spiritual side.

They are steadfast (semuchim) forever” — the writings of the Torah rely securely (somchim) on the pillars of divine wisdom that nurtures the advance of enlightenment in the world. If divine providence exists even in the smallest and most insignificant of creatures, then certainly it should be found in that which gives meaning and purpose to humanity, the crown of creation. Thus, the words of Torah are “made in truth and uprightness.” We may be confident in the validity of moral lessons derived from the semichut of adjacent texts, as this order was certainly intended by God’s wisdom for our spiritual benefit.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah p. 49)

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