Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 2: Rejoice with Trembling


What should be our emotional state during prayer? Joy and delight? Or seriousness and reverence?

In fact, we find that the psalmist advocates both of these conflicting emotions:

“עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּיִרְאָה, וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה.” (תהילים ב:י"א)

“Serve God in awe, and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalms 2:11)

How can one rejoice and tremble at the same time?

Joy and Solemnity

What is the source of joy in prayer? The wonderful sensation of closeness to God naturally makes us feel happy. We feel sadness and even bitterness, on the other hand, when we reflect on our mistakes and character defects. Awareness of our faults becomes more pronounced as we advance spiritually and morally, and relate more deeply to God’s perfection.

From the verse, however, it is not clear which emotion should be the major theme, and which the minor one. What does it mean to “rejoice in trembling"? Should our overall attitude in prayer be one of solemnity and trembling, accompanied by a measure of gladness? Or should joy be our dominant emotion, tempered by seriousness and introspection?

The Sages taught: “When rejoicing, there should also be trembling” (Berachot 30). This indicates that our overriding emotion should be one of joy. True spiritual growth is achieved through happiness and an expansive frame of mind.

However, we must be careful that this joy does not lead to frivolity and flippancy. Therefore, the psalmist counseled that we “rejoice with trembling.” We should temper our joy with a contemplative reverence, as we reflect on who we are and before Whom we are standing in prayer. This sobering thought limits our joy only to those aspects that relate to genuine spiritual advancement.

Gilah versus Simchah

Rav Kook noted that the verse specifically uses the Hebrew word gilah, meaning an exuberant outburst of joy. This form of lively gaiety may lead one to frivolity, and neglecting the path of spiritual growth. Therefore, the psalm admonishes us to “rejoice in trembling,” to keep this high-spirited joy in check with reverence and thoughtful seriousness.

Yet there is another form of joy, an inner happiness called simchah, the result of wisdom and enlightenment. Simchah contains a tranquility that is free of the potential pitfalls of the more exuberant gilah. It does not need to be diluted or restrained. It is about this reverential service of God that it says, “Awe of God will add days,” so that “sadness will add nothing to it” (Proverbs 10:27,22).

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol I, p. 128)