Tuesday, July 23, 2019

How TO and How NOT To Apply Tehilim to Your Life

This is a Tehilim methodology post. Although it can be read on its own, you will gain more out of it if you have read my guide on How to Learn Tehilim.

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How TO and How NOT To Apply Tehilim to Your Life

A former student of mine recently attended a class on Tehilim (Psalms). The source sheet for this class included a short paragraph of advice for "how to say Tehilim with more meaning" based on the writings of a certain well-known rabbi. I'm not going to name the source because I don't want anyone to be biased on account of the author's identity. The source sheet said:
Regarding the saying of Tehillim, [Rabbi Ploni] told a student that the main thing is to say the verses directed to one's own life, to apply the messages of the verses to one's own experiences. He further explained that in all the wars which Dovid HaMelech asked Hashem to grant him success, a person should interpret it as relating to his own wars with the yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination).
My student wanted to know what I thought of this rabbi's advice.

Before I share my response, I think it would behoove us to review the Sefer ha'Chinuch's explanation of the practice of "saying Tehilim," as he writes in his explanation of Mitzvah #512, and which I referenced in my post How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha. In my learning experience I have found this to be the most eloquent Rishonic statement on what Tehilim is for, and how it ought to be used. The Sefer ha'Chinuch writes:

[These] psalms contain words that inspire the soul that knows them to shelter in Hashem, to take security in Him, to establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and to rely on His kindness and goodness; as a result of this inspiration, he will be protected from every harm, without a doubt.
In other words, the process involves three steps: (1) learn the pesukim with the goal of understanding their ideational content, (2) read them and recite them with these ideas in mind in order to inspire yourself and strengthen your relationship with Hashem, (3) as a result, you will be protected from harm, in accordance with your level of closeness to Hashem.

Now that we've reviewed the basic idea of what it means to say Tehilim, here is my response to my student's question about Rabbi Ploni's advice.


I have mixed thoughts about the methodology cited in [source text]. On the one hand, I agree that if a person learns Tehilim without applying it to his or her life, then he or she is missing out on the essential purpose of the sefer, which is to improve our relationship with Hashem. 

On the other hand, I am wary of the advice "to say the verses directed to one's own life, to apply the messages of the verses to one's own experiences." If this is done after a person learns the perek - or at least those specific pesukim - then that's great, but if a person merely reads through the pesukim and selects those which feel like they apply to their own life, then they run the risk of merely projecting their own emotions and psychological issues onto the words of David ha'Melech, without actually accessing the ideas that David intended to convey.

For instance, let's say someone is feeling dejected or in a state of suffering. She takes Sefer Tehilim and flips through the pages trying to find something that she feels applies to her own situation. She finds Tehilim 22, which famously opens with the line, “My God, my God – why have You abandoned me? You are far from my salvation at the word of my cry!” This pasuk resonates with her. She recites it with passion, pouring out her heart in crying out to a God that she feels has abandoned her in her time of need.

But unless she has learned through the perek as a whole, in a comprehensive and intellectually honest manner, how does she know whether this pasuk has anything to do with her personal situation? Maybe God hasn’t abandoned her. Maybe she’s just seeking Him incorrectly. Even worse: maybe by “blaming” God for something that’s her fault and not His, she is only distancing Him from herself even more. And what is her understanding of God being “close” or “far,” in general? Maybe the metric she’s using to assess God’s "distance" from her is totally incorrect. Maybe, in her mind, if she davens for something and doesn't get what she wants, then that means God has abandoned her - a view which we know to be false. And how does she even know that this perek is about a person such as herself? Maybe this is David ha’Melech who was making reference to the specific hashgachic  (providential) relationship that Hashem had with him, and to tzadikim who are on his level. Maybe, as Chazal suggest, this is Esther, who was reaching out to Hashem from her position of leadership and responsibility in saving Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) from Haman’s plot. Maybe, as some of the meforshim (commentators) suggest, this perek isn’t even about an individual being abandoned by God, but it’s about Klal Yisrael as a whole in galus (exile). 

But if our hypothetical Tehilim reciter doesn’t bother to search for true answers to these questions – or doesn’t even ask them in the first place – then all she’ll be doing is using David ha’Melech’s words as an echo-chamber for her own emotional issues. If that's all she's doing, then perhaps she’d be better off reciting poetry or song lyrics, rather than distorting words of ruach ha’kodesh (divine inspiration) through the prism of her own subjective psyche.

I also have problems with the second part of [Rabbi Ploni's] advice. Yes, a person should view the struggle with the yetzer ha’ra as a war. Chazal used this mashal (metaphor), and it’s a good one, since the yetzer ha’ra is a cunning foe, and constant vigilance is a necessity if one hopes to avoid defeat. But to read all of David ha’Melech’s requests as relating to your own battles with your yetzer ha’ra seems to be intellectually irresponsible, and can easily lend itself to just making up our own "ideas" and treating them as David ha’Melech’s wisdom.

Consider, for example, the following pesukim from Tehilim Perek 3:
Hashem, how numerous are my enemies! There are many who rise up against me. Many are those who say of my soul, “There is no help for him in God,” Selah. But You, Hashem, are a shield for me; my glory, and the one who raises up my head. I will cry out to Hashem with my voice and He will answer me from His holy mountain, Selah. I laid down and slept; I awoke, for Hashem sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves around me. Arise, Hashem! Save me, my God, for You have struck all my enemies on the cheek bone; you have broken the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to Hashem; Your blessing is upon Your people, Selah.
On the surface, it would seem feasible to read the yetzer ha’ra mashal into these pesukim"Hashem, how numerous are my enemies! There are many who rise up against me" can be interpreted as: "There are numerous yetzer ha’ra temptations all around." "Many are those who say of my soul, 'There is no help for him in God,' Selah" can be read as: "The yetzer ha’ra causes us to doubt that Hashem can help us." "But You, Hashem, are a shield for me; my glory, and the one who raises up my head" can be taken to mean: "Hashem acts as a shield against the yetzer ha’ra." And so on. 

But take note of the introductory pasuk of this perek:
A psalm of David, when he fled from Avshalom, his son.
This perek was written by David about a specific conflict he faced with his son Avshalom, which is spelled out in Shmuel II, and he intended the words of this perek to be understood within that specific context. Sure, the insights one gains from this perek can be applied to a broader set of situations – otherwise, David wouldn’t have recorded these words for us – but his introductory pasuk clearly indicates that he held that the content of the perek should be interpreted in light of the specific situation for which he wrote it.

So if [Rabbi Ploni] wants to takes those words out of the author’s specified context, advising us to “treat this as being about your own battle with your yetzer ha’ra,” is that really an intellectually honest approach? Is it any different than, say, taking a chemistry textbook and interpreting the various statements about chemical reactions a mashal for how our yetzer ha’ra reacts when we do aveiros (transgressions), or taking a cookbook and treating the recipes as a mashal for “the ingredients” of a successful avodas Hashem

You might find these examples laughable, but I’ve chosen them for a reason. Apparently, there were groups of Chasidim or Baalei Mussar who held that the masechtos (tractates) in Nezikin which deal with the laws of damages should be interpreted as a mashal for how to handle the “damage” of the yetzer ha’ra. For example, the laws governing the case of an ox goring a cow should be treated as a mashal for the strategies that the yetzer ha'ra uses to cause damage to the neshamah. To my mind, this is worse than intellectual dishonesty. It’s just foolishness.

So, to sum it up: Tehilim will definitely be more meaningful if you apply it to your own life, but only after doing your due diligence as a student of Torah by attempting to learn and understand the Tehilim you recite before you recite them. If you skip this critical step and simply choose pesukim that resonate with you on a purely emotional level, you run the risk of projecting your own flawed understanding and psychological baggage onto the text, which will stunt the development of your relationship with Hashem. As for the metaphorical readings of David's wars: my advice is to stick to the pshat, and learn your strategies for waging war with the yetzer ha'ra from the pesukim in which David ha'Melech explicitly addresses this subject.


I realize that the problems I've outlined here are not unique to Tehilim. They apply in a similar way to the text of tefilah (prayer). In truth, it is possible for a person to read whatever he wants into whatever text he wants, as I pointed out earlier in the example of those who read Nezikin allegorically. But in my opinion, there is a unique danger in making this error with regards to texts which are regularly recited in a "ritual manner" (for lack of a better term) as a means of drawing closer to Hashem.

Nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I converted to Judaism, my brother and I found ourselves at a Chabad house on the island of Oahu. This was back before Chabad had a regular minyan on the island. Sure enough, we were recruited for a minyan. The Chabad administrator who was in charge of coordinating the minyan had a chauffeur who drove us around. She was a native Hawaiian woman in her late fifties or early sixties. I don't know whether she just worked for Chabad, or whether she was in the process of conversion, or whether she was Jewish.

All I remember is that whenever we had downtime, she would pull out a small sefer (or maybe it was even a pamphlet?) and start chanting a single pasuk from Tehilim. If memory serves, the pasuk was "Adonoi hoshia, ha'Melech yaaneinu b'yom kareinu" (Tehilim 20:10). And when I say "chanting" I mean rhythmically and ritualistically, like a mantra - over, and over, and over, and over. Had I asked her what she was doing, I don't know whether she'd say that she's davening, or utilizing a segulah ("folk charm"), or if she even had an idea of what she was doing. It was the single-minded fervor with which she was saying her mantra that struck me.

Let's assume that this woman knew the English translation of what she was saying: "My Lord, save! May the King answer us on the day we call." If this woman had even a basic comprehension of what she was saying - a recognition that Hashem is able to save, or that salvation belongs to Him, or that He responds to our prayers, or that He is our true king - then this woman's recitation might actually strengthen her relationship with Hashem by "inspiring her soul" in a positive direction, as the Sefer ha'Chinuch explained.

But what if this woman harbored a fundamentally distorted understanding? What if she believed that her recitation invoked an emotion of pity in God? What if she believed that she was praying to an angel as an intercessor between herself and God? What if she, like many native Hawaiians, still clung to her polytheistic beliefs, and had somehow amalgamated them into her practice of this new "ritual"? If any of these scenarios were the case, then her fervent devotion to Tehilim would have an equal but opposite effect, propelling her away from Hashem into the grips of avodah zarah. 

My point in sharing this anecdote is this: Tehilim is a powerful tool. When used properly, it can fortify and elevate the soul of the one who recites it. When used improperly, it can hinder our spiritual development, or even lead us astray. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the post, I'm intrigued by your choice of Perek 3 as an example for taking Tehillim out of context, as it's included in the Siddur following the bedtime Shema without its introductory passuk. How do you think this would be justified?