Ps. 51: Seeking Openings

Rabbi David Maayan has been a longtime teacher of Jewish texts, particularly mystical theology and Hasidic literature. He is currently a PhD student in comparative theology at Boston College, writing on Jewish mystical devotion as a path to articulate one’s unique personhood in comparison with Christian mystical theologies of the transformation of the person.

 

O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

Throughout the Book of Psalms, we find opening words which provide a sort of title to each psalm, associating it with a particular biblical figure (often King David), and frequently particular musical instruments or genres of music that it should be set to. This opening is called the superscription of the psalm. These brief introductions are precious tools for entering the lived experience of each psalm. Although we have no way of reconstructing the precise instruments or melodies invoked by the text, they remind us that the text we see before us is not complete in its quiet and motionless form on the page. The text invites us to bring instruments to it, in order to bring it to life. While this is often done through musical instrumentation, we are also invited to bring the tools of our imagination to the textual enterprise to discover the lived experience which has been condensed in the written word, and which may be brought alive for us again.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke of reading psalms as a “freeze-dried” experience. The superscription for our text is like the instructions on the package, a recipe for reconstituting the lived situation from which the words were spoken: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Actually, this phrasing itself is rather delicate. It situates the psalm in the context of the (in)famous story of David and Bathsheba (I Samuel 11-12). David “going in” to Bathsheba is a euphemism for his obtaining Bathsheba for himself sexually, having her brought to him and then plotting to have her husband Uriah—one of his own soldiers—killed in battle. Nathan “came to him” to rebuke him in the name of God—although the prophet initially proceeded craftily, getting David to condemn the evil of his deeds before realizing that he was actually judging himself.

The first half of the psalm thus finds David in a desperate state, overwhelmed by his awareness of the moral evil of his actions. He pleads for God’s mercy and forgiveness, using a range of terms to frankly describe his deeds—“transgressions,” “sin,” “iniquity,” “guilt.” We see a particular window into his psyche in the words: “my sin is before me always.” In Psalm 16 David declares in the same language he has “placed God before him always.” It is as though his sin now threatens to block or replace his access to the Divine—he can only stare at himself in the mirror and see the evil he has done.

By the time we reach David’s request, “O Lord, open my lips” (verse 15) it is not merely a request for fluency from one feeling tongue-tied. Nor is it a generically pious declaration that God is always the source of our own inspiration and our ability to pray. Rather, David feels pressured by such an overwhelming awareness of guilt and condemnation that he can barely speak. He is on the brink of despair, and his sin looms over him, threatening to smother him entirely. From this desperate situation, David cries out seeking an opening from and to God.

The scene resonates with another from the beginning of the Bible, the encounter between God and Cain after he has committed the first murder. Cain is despondent, his “face falls,” and God comes to speak to him. This is also the first time the word “opening” is used in the Bible, in the enigmatic statement attributed to God in Genesis 4:7, which I would render in English as “sin is crouching at the opening; its desire is towards you, and you can rule over it.” Sin here is personified, or better “animalified,” as a crouching predator ready to pounce upon Cain. It wants to get him, smother and devour him before he finds an opening—but he can “rule over” it.

Yet, here there is an important corrective to a modern tendency, drawn from popular psychology, to speak of guilt “feelings” or “complexes.” It is clear from the biblical texts that Cain and David are not confronted by mere “feelings” of guilt, but by the fact of each one’s sin and guilt. To speak only of a “sense of guilt” is to assume from the beginning that one is “innocent” and that what confronts one is only a subjective problem—painful feelings to be dispelled and overcome. But God, far from telling Cain that his action was not so bad or even that it now lies safely in the past, confronts him in his denial and evasion: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” This cry, even if rooted in the past, is heard in the present. Similarly, David’s sin is before him right now.

At this moment in America, we are confronted with ongoing and very present issues of injustice and racism. Yet, these are also rooted in our past, in historical patterns, social structures, and individual choices. Learning about these aspects of our contemporary situation and of our history can bring up painful feelings which can threaten to overwhelm us, and we may be brought to the edge of despair. To avoid this fate, however, we may be tempted to engage in denial, not facing the reality of moral evil as it confronts and implicates us. We may believe we have “overcome” this suffocating threat by pushing it aside, relieving ourselves of its oppressive presence. Yet Cain is not called upon to defeat “sin” by destroying it, but rather to “rule over” it. In Hebrew, as in English, this phrasing implies a sense of personal ownership. Cain is called upon by God to “own” his own sin, neither denying it nor permitting it to block his access to God. He is called to find the strength to continue to grow, which can only happen by accepting ownership, and the naked fact of his own guilt. He doesn’t merely feel guilty, he is guilty. Nonetheless, God shows him the freedom that can come from accepting this fact.

Similarly, David is not asking to be relieved from his “sense” of guilt so that he can pray again in blissful ignorance. Rather, in Psalm 51 we find David suggesting that his very brokenness is an opening to God. God wishes us to offer him “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” In the most profound sense, David’s search for an opening here is the opposite of what we today sometimes speak of as “seeking closure.” Rather than seeking closure or to be made whole again, David is seeking to find the way to make his own wounds and limitations openings to the Divine.

To be sure, this pious message deserves to be interrogated when looking more closely at the text from I Samuel and our psalm. While David expresses deep remorse for his sins and desperately seeks forgiveness from God, we never find that David sought to heal the wounds that he had caused to Bathsheba, to Uriah, or the violation of the public trust involved in sending Uriah together with other loyal troops into a deliberate suicide mission for David’s own perceived private gain. While he cannot bring Uriah back from the dead, of course, still we might ask: where does the Bible tell us of David seeking forgiveness from Uriah’s mourning relatives, for example, or reflecting on what Bathsheba may have undergone or was still living with? When viewed from this perspective, David’s initial declaration to God in Psalm 51 that “against You alone have I sinned!” is highly problematic. Of course, that we can voice these criticisms and raise disturbing questions is also a testimony to the Bible’s blunt and stark presentation of the whole affair. The Bible allows—or better, demands—that we enter into its stories with our imaginations and our moral sensibilities. While the text beckons us to do so, this only comes about through active engagement with it. When we engage in such a process as honestly and fully as we can, we may find ourselves, like the patriarch Jacob, wrestling in the dark (Genesis 32), emerging at daybreak newly aware both of our woundedness and our blessings, somehow finding an opening to take another step forward.

 

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