Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 125: Judging Scholars Favorably


This short “Song of Ascents” describes God’s protection of the Jewish people. Like the protective ring of mountains surrounding Jerusalem, God guards and watches over us.

The chapter concludes with a supplication:

הֵיטִיבָה ה’ לַטּוֹבִים וְלִישָׁרִים בְּלִבּוֹתָם. וְהַמַּטִּים עֲקַלְקַלּוֹתָם יוֹלִיכֵםָ ה’ אֶת-פֹּעֲלֵי הָאָוֶן. שָׁלוֹם עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. (תהילים קכ"ה:ד-ה)

“Do good, God, to the good and the upright in their hearts. But for those who turn to their crooked ways, God will make them go the way of evildoers. May there be peace upon Israel.” (Psalms 125:4-5)

Making Others Crooked

The above translation is not completely faithful to the original Hebrew. The word המטים (“those who turn”) is in the causative tense. This verb form indicates that the evil are turning others to their crooked ways.

Who are their victims? Clearly, those mentioned previously: those who are “good and upright in their hearts.”

According to the Talmud, it is not that they mislead the righteous; rather, they ascribe to them their own unscrupulous traits. They “turn” and distort the accurate image of the upright, projecting on them their own moral weaknesses and unprincipled ways.

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Whoever makes derogatory remarks about Torah scholars after their death will be cast into Gehinnom. Even at a time when ‘there is peace upon Israel,’ ‘God will make them go the way of evildoers.'” (Berachot 19a)

Belittling others is wrong, and belittling Torah scholars is even worse. But does it warrant such a harsh verdict?

Honoring Scholars

The Torah’s command to “judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15) is not only for those who officially serve as judges. We are all judges. We constantly pass judgment on those around us. It is an important ethical trait that we should look for the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt (Avot 1:6).

Judging favorably is especially important with regard to Torah scholars. The Sages wrote that those who ridicule their teachers will find it difficult to repent. What makes this particular fault so hard to repair?

Maimonides suggests a simple pragmatic explanation: if we do not respect our rabbis and teachers, from whom will we be able to learn? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 4:2) Such a person is left without any ethical moorings. He has no role models to respect and emulate, no moral standards to guide him. As the Talmud cautions, he is doomed to share the lot of evildoers.

Respecting their Legacy

Interestingly, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explained the verse as speaking of those who denigrate scholars posthumously. This reading of the verse stems from the similarity between the words מַּטִּים (“those who turn”) and מיטתם (“their death bier”).

The emphasis on honoring scholars even after their passing indicates that we should respect not only the scholars, but also that which continues after their death: their teachings and moral legacy.

This idea is already noted by Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 3:14), that giving the benefit of the doubt also applies to the writings of the sages. Even statements that may appear at first glance to be illogical or inaccurate, on deeper examination will be revealed to offer profound insights. With a healthy measure of intellectual humility, we enable the teachings of these wise scholars to illuminate our lives.

The psalm concludes with a short prayer, “May there be peace upon Israel.” The inclusion of this phrase is clearer in light of the Talmud’s exegesis on the verse. There are difficult periods for the Jewish people: times when corruption and immorality are rampant, when society as a whole suffers from materialism and cynicism. And there are times of peace: times when the spiritual and moral level of the people is robust.

Those who are accustomed to belittling Torah scholars and their teachings will always be subject to moral failings. Even when there is peace in Israel, even when the people benefit from a stable moral state, their lot will be with the crooked and the incorrigible.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 94-95)

Illustration image: ‘Talmud readers’ (Abraham Adolf Behrman, 1876-1942)