Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 144: No Breach in Our Street

In this psalm, King David acknowledged God’s assistance in his battles against treacherous foes. The chapter concludes with a prayer for hardy sons and regal daughters, plentiful crops and peaceful streets.

“אַלּוּפֵינוּ מְסֻבָּלִים, אֵין-פֶּרֶץ וְאֵין יוֹצֵאת, וְאֵין צְוָחָה בִּרְחֹבֹתֵינוּ. (תהילים קמ"ד:י"ד)

“Our leaders (alufeinu) are burdened. There is no breach nor rumors going out, and no outcry in our streets.” (Psalms 144:14)

The Hebrew word alufeinu is not clear. Many of the commentaries understand it to mean ‘our cattle’ — a reference to the healthy state of the livestock. The Talmud, however, interpreted alufeinu as leaders and teachers. “Our leaders are burdened” — they are laden with weighty responsibilities in matters of Torah and mitzvot (Berakhot 17b).

But what about the continuation of the verse — the wish for tranquil streets, without breaches and outcries? What do Torah scholars have to do with quiet streets?

'Burning Food in Public'

The Talmud explains that this is a prayer that our rabbis not be plagued by errant students. The Sages noted that many of the Jewish people’s greatest scholars and prophets suffered from unworthy disciples and associates. King David’s chief counselor was the traitorous Ahitophel, who backed the rebellion of David’s son Absalom. King Saul employed Doeg the Edomite, who was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent priests of Nov. And the prophet Elisha had to endure the ruses of his greedy servant Gehazi.

The Talmud explains that the phrase “in our streets” means that that we will not be disgraced by “a student who burns his dish in public.” The expression “to burn one’s dish” means to follow a ruinous and heretical path. Doing so “in public” means that the wayward student has openly promulgated such a path, seeking to lead others astray.

Still, this curious idiom requires clarification. Ruining one’s dish, Rav Kook explained, is an appropriate metaphor for one who perverts the words of Torah for erroneous and dangerous ideas. The ingredients were healthy, the food was wholesome — but the final dish was ruined. So, too, the words of Torah are certainly correct and noble; but the wicked misuse them for devious and unscrupulous purposes.

Where did the errant student go wrong? He saw his teachers expounding the words of Torah, using traditional methods of exegesis in an appropriate and sound fashion. The student thought that he too would establish a new vision — but one contradictory to Judaism’s fundamental tenets.

For this reason, the reference to the errant disciple is inferred from the word ברחובותינו (birhovoteinu). Literally, this means “in our streets.” But it can also mean, “in our expansion,” — i.e., our methods of expanding and elaborating the Torah’s teachings.

This is certainly a matter that deserves earnest prayer: that irresponsible students do not misuse the tools for interpreting the Torah in order to distort the true meaning of God’s message.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 87)