(Tehilim (Psalms
(Tehilim (PsalmsFlash 90

Parashat Pekudey completes the second Book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus. It opens by listing all the items which were used for constructing the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the Priestly Garments (Exodus 38:21-39:32), continues with Moshe’s inspection and approval of the Mishkan (39:33-43), the actual construction of the completed Mishkan on the 1st of Nissan just two weeks shy of a year after the Exodus (40:1-33), and concludes with G-d’s Cloud of Glory covering the Mishkan above and His Glory filling it within in all Israel’s journeys (40:34-38).

Once the work had all been completed, and the Mishkan and all its accoutrements were ready for assembly, “ (3Moshe saw all the labour, and behold! – they had done it; as Hashem had commanded it, thus had they done it. And Moshe blessed them”9:43).

Though the Torah gives no details of how Moshe blessed the people, various Midrashim record what this blessing was:

“‘And Moshe blessed them’: what was the blessing with which he blessed them? – He said to them: May it be His will that His Shechinah [Divine Presence] be infused into the work of your hands! And they responded to him, ‘And may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and upon the work of our hands’ (Psalms 90:17)” (Seder Olam Rabbah Chapter 6; and with a few differences in Sifra, Shemini 1; in Sifri Numbers, Pinchas 143; in Tosefta, Menachot 7:8; and in a few other places).

Rashi (commentary to Exodus 39:43) paraphrases these Midrashim: “‘And Moshe blessed them’ – he said to them: May it be His will that His Shechinah be infused into the work of your hands, ‘and may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and upon the work of our hands’ (Psalms 90:17), which is one of the eleven Psalms which Moshe composed”.

This additional phrase of Rashi’s (“...one of the eleven Psalms which Moshe composed”) sounds like a casual line; but Rashi is never casual in his wording. So let us ask: what did Rashi want to call our attention to with this phrase?

Who wrote this Psalm? Moshe or King David?

The Talmud (Bava Batra 15a-b, as explained by Rashi) tells us that King David wrote the Book of Psalms, and he incorporated into it prayers which had been composed by ten men before him: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moshe, Heiman, Yedutun, Asaf, and Korach’s three sons.

Many of the Psalms begin with a superscription indicating their authorship, or intention, or their intended musical accompaniment:

“By David, a Song of Praise” (Psalms 3, 15, 23, 24, et al.);

“For the Conductor, a Song of Enlightenment by the sons of Korach” (Psalms 42, 44);

“A Song of Praise for the Shabbat-day” (Psalms 92);

“A Song of Praise, a song for the Dedication of the Holy Temple by David” (Psalm 30);

“For the Conductor, by Yedutun” (Psalms 39);

“For the Conductor, to be played on the Shoshanim [a rose-shaped musical instrument] by the sons of Korach” (Psalms 45);

“For the Conductor, to be played on the Machalat [a specific musical instrument, maybe wood-wind], a Song of Enlightenment by David” (Psalms 53);

“For the Conductor, to be played on the Nechilot [a very low-pitched string instrument], a Song of Praise by David” (Psalm 5), and so forth.

Psalm 90 begins with the superscription, “A prayer of Moshe, the Man of G-d”. The next ten Psalms (91 to 100) have no indication as to their authorship, then Psalm 101 begins, “By David, a Song of Praise”. The inference is that the superscription which ascribes Psalm 90’s authorship to Moshe applies to all eleven Psalms, from 90 to 100.

The Midrash Shocher Tov (Psalms 90) cites Rabbi Chelbo (a 3rd-generation Babylonian Amora): “On his final day...Moshe blessed eleven of the Tribes [vide Deuteronomy 33]...and Moshe composed eleven Psalms of Praise, corresponding to these eleven Tribes”.

The Midrash Shocher Tov continues by expounding that Psalm 90 corresponds to the Tribe of Reuben.

Now it seems puzzling that the Psalm which accompanied the construction of the Mishkan would be the Psalm which corresponds to Reuben. It was, after all, the Levites who administered and served in the Mishkan (later the Holy Temple). Would it not, then, have been more appropriate to have sung the 91st Psalm, which was the Psalm which corresponds to the Tribe of Levi?

Indeed the opening words of Psalm 91 are singularly appropriate for the Mishkan: “Who sits in the shelter of the Supreme One will repose in the Shadow of the Almighty...”.

I suggest: –

Moshe, in his great humility, wanted to acknowledge the Tribe which originally had the birthright of the firstborn. Reuben, who was the firstborn of the Tribes’ founders, had lost his birthright; subsequently the Tribe of Levi was granted the Kehunah (Priesthood) and the Tribe of Judah was granted the Kingship.

But now, at this inaugural moment, Moshe wanted to give the Tribe of Reuben their due.

He wanted to guarantee that every Jew, of whatever Tribe, would know that he had his personal share in the Mishkan – not only the Levites.

The Sifra, Shemini 1 (quoted above) continues by citing Rabbi Meir: “[Moshe] said to them: ‘May Hashem, G-d of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold and bless you as He has spoken to you’ (Deuteronomy 1:11); and then he said to them, Happy are you, O Israel, that you merited the Service of the Mishkan; and as you have merited this, so may you also merit that He will give you the Holy Temple and infuse His Shechinah into your midst, as it says ‘They will make Me a Mikdash and I will dwell in their midst’ (Exodus 25:8)”.

Indeed, the Mishkan and later the Holy Temple were to be the heritage and the merit of all twelve Tribes of Israel.

Moshe had long-since commanded every single Jew to donate a half-shekel for the Mishkan; “the wealthy will not give more, and the poor will not give less, than the half-shekel” (Exodus 30:15), thus guaranteeing that every single Jew, from the wealthiest to the poorest, had the identical share in the Mishkan.

The Mishkan was to be an equaliser between Jews, not emphasise the differences.

And intriguingly, the Midrash cites this same Psalm as an indication that all are equal in prayer:

“If a poor man comes before a regular human to say something, then he won’t necessarily listen to him; if a wealthy man speaks, he will listen and accept what he says. But G-d is not like this: rather all are equal before Him – women and slaves, wealthy and poor. After all, what is written of Moshe, the Master of all the Prophets, is identical to what is written of the poor man: Of Moshe is written, ‘A prayer of Moshe, the Man of G-d’ (Psalms 90:1); and of the poor man is written, ‘A prayer of the impoverished, when he is enwrapped [with afflictions] and pours out his prayers’ (Psalms 102:1). Just as the one is a prayer, so too is the other equally a prayer. This shows you that all are equal in prayer before G-d” (Shemot Rabbah 21:4).

It is frequently said that war is a great leveller: on the battlefield, rich and poor are killed equally.

And the war currently raging in Ukraine bears this out only too starkly. The wealthiest of Ukrainians have as little shelter from the onslaught as the poorest, the shells blow the meanest hovels and the most grandiose mansions apart with equal lethality.

Indeed the Austrian historian Walter Scheidel posited in “The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century” (Princeton University Press, 2018) that only catastrophes such as wars, revolutions, famines, floods, and total collapse of society have ever produced human equality (or at least reduced human inequality).

Though Scheidel presents considerable evidence for his hypothesis, it is nevertheless a terribly bleak and depressing exposition on the human condition.

Far, far more positive and optimistic and inspiring is this final message as the Book of Exodus draws to its close, preparing us for the Book of Leviticus and the Mishkan’s beginning to function in the Sinai Desert:

In the Torah ideal, it is service of G-d, the holiest and most sublime of human endeavours, not disaster, which is the great leveller.

Catastrophes level societies by reducing all to misery and making all suffer equally.

The Mishkan levels Jewish society by elevating all to sanctity and inspiring all equally.

And the Mishkan was the paradigm for the Holy Temple – ultimately the third and eternal Holy Temple, rebuilt in Jerusalem, which will level not only Israel but through its universal inspiration level all societies by elevating all to the plateau of sanctity.