Psalms – Chapter 78

The Microcosm of Jewish History

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

This Psalm of Asaf is a Maskil – it is intended to enlighten people. Listen up to the Written Torah and pay attention to the Oral Torah! We’re going to review history and see how it applies to us. We have received the Torah, which was transmitted to us from our ancestors; we shall continue to “pay it forward” until the end of time. We will tell our children of all the wondrous deeds that G-d has performed for us.

G-d gave us “testimonies” through the Forefathers, then He gave us the Torah at Sinai. He commanded us to transmit the Torah to all future generations so that they would know Him and follow His laws. Without this, they would inevitably become lawless, like earlier generations, who did not remain true to G-d.

In Egypt, the Tribe of Ephraim tried to leave prematurely, before the time for redemption had come. The warriors who participated in this revolt were killed by the men of Gath. The enemy was permitted to slay the Ephraimites because the Tribe “jumped the gun,” counter to G-d’s directions. (See I Chronicles chapter 7. According to one opinion, the slaughtered soldiers of Ephraim were the skeletons resurrected in the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37.)

In general, the Jews who left Egypt were a rebellious group. They tried G-d throughout their time in the wilderness, despite the miracles He had wrought for them. He split the sea for them, then led with with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of flame by night. He gave them water to drink from the very rocks of the desert, but they still tested Him by demanding meat (see Number chapter 11). They asked if this was outside His abilities. (As if!) This angered G-d, who had been sustaining the Jews daily with manna from Heaven. So, He caused the wind to blow in an unbelievable number of quail. He fed them meat until they stuffed themselves, them He directed His wrath against them.

This wasn’t the end of their rebellions, though! They even questioned His ability to bring them into the land of Israel, so He caused the older generation to die out in the desert. The surviving generation was inspired to draw closer to G-d and to believe in His ability to deliver them to the land. They were not altogether sincere in their repentance, but G-d is merciful and He declined to destroy them. He allowed for human imperfections, despite all the rebellions in the desert. (These rebellions range from the Golden Calf and Korach to the spies and worshiping the Moabite idol Baal Peor.) The Jews in the wilderness demanded constant signs of G-d, rather than relying upon Him, even after He took them out of Egypt among myriad miracles.

Just look at what G-d did in Egypt: He made the rivers into blood. He sent wild beasts. He sent frogs. He sent locusts. He sent hail, which, by the way, had fire flashing among it. He sent His anger, wrath, indignation, trouble and messengers of evil. (Sound familiar? It’s in the Passover Haggadah.) Unimpeded, His anger headed straight for the Egyptians during the final plague, the slaying of the first-born. G-d then led the Jews out of Egypt like a flock of sheep.

The Jews were encouraged when they saw the Egyptian army destroyed at the Red Sea. G-d led them to the land of Israel, where He drove out the Canaanite nations before them. They acquired Jerusalem and the Temple mount, and the Tribes took possession of their assigned territories. And still they rebelled against G-d! They built altars to idols and angered Him. He permitted the Mishkan (the Tabernacle built in the desert) to be destroyed and the Ark to be captured. He allowed enemy nations to get the upper hand. Young men were killed in battle, leaving their brides widowed. When the Ark was captured, the High Priest (Eli) and his sons (Chofni and Pinchas) were killed; Pinchas’ wife died in labor and was unable to mourn him.

G-d then took action and beat back the Philistine enemy, defeating them by afflicting them with embarrassing ailments (see I Samuel chapter 6). They returned the Ark to the Jews, but G-d did not permit the Tabernacle to be rebuilt. G-d selected the Tribe of Judah for the king whose dynasty would be eternal and He designated the site for His Temple in their territory. G-d took David from a shepherd to a king; he went from tending ewes to tending the nation. David led the people with skill and understanding.

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