There’s a verse from Tehillim that (with the exception of the Chabad minhag) is recited at the end of bentching (birkas hamazon/grace after meals) and is sung as a beautiful niggun. It goes:
Naar hayisi gam zakanti v’lo ra’isi tzaddik neezav v’zaro m’vakesh lachem.
I was young and I became old but I never saw a righteous person forsaken and his children searching for bread. (Psalms 37:25)
As beautiful as this sentiment may be, this is historically a very troublesome verse. After all, we have seen righteous people in poverty and their children searching for sustenance. We can’t say that the Bible is “wrong” (God forbid), so how are we to understand this verse?
The commentators offer a number of explanations but I favor the one expressed in Vayikra Rabbah (35:2):
Even though his children may have to search for food, I haven’t seen a righteous father forsake his faith in God.
According to this understanding, the verse isn’t saying that God doesn’t permit righteous people to become needy – because, clearly, He sometimes does – but that the righteous don’t give up on God even when times are hard.
My purpose here, however, is not to discuss why bad things happen to good people; this is a complex topic that is addressed in The God Papers. Here, I wish to discuss what this verse from Tehillim says to me, personally.
“I was young and now I’m old,” King David says, “and I never saw a righteous person forsaken.” Whether you understand this verse as meaning that God doesn’t let the righteous go without (as is the simple reading of the text) or that the righteous don’t give up on God regardless of circumstances (as per Vayikra Rabbah), one thing remains true: it’s about consistency. Some things may change but others remain the same.
I really relate to the sentiment “naar hayisi gam zakanti” and not just because I once was young and now I’m somewhat older. This idea is true in many others ways: I’ve been the student and I’ve been the teacher. I’ve been the child and I’ve been the parent. I’ve been an athlete and I’ve been disabled. Fill in your own examples. The reality is that our circumstances are perpetually changing in one way or another. This is the nature of life.
And yet, “v’lo ra’isi tzaddik neezav” – I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken. Some things are always true, no matter how much other things may change. This isn’t only true of external circumstances (such as how God treats the righteous), it’s also true of internal things (like how the righteous treat God). Our personalities and inclinations are hardcoded into us.
I was involved with NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, for three decades, the last of which as an employee in the National Office. To this day, I recall the very first phone call I received in that capacity. A woman called me up very concerned about her son. She had raised him in a Conservative home but he was becoming Orthodox, which she felt was changing him. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she had been raised in a Reform household and, when she started becoming Conservative, her mother was concerned about how she was changing. She said that she had to explain to her mother that she was still the same person, she was just doing a few things differently in line with her conscience. I pointed out that this was exactly the same with her son: he’s still the same person, he just feels the need to do some things differently. This, she had to concede, was a fair observation.
This works in the opposite direction as well. Let’s say that someone’s friend, student or child goes “off the derech” (a phrase I don’t particularly care for but grudgingly use because it’s easily understood within the frum community). We may not like it when someone leaves the fold. It may pain us because we believe the Torah to be true and we don’t like to see our loved ones doing things we think are detrimental. But we shouldn’t shun them. Even if they’re doing something different, they’re still the ones we loved last week, last month and last year. Some things change (what people do), while others don’t (who people are).
Earlier, I said that our personalities and inclinations are hardcoded into us. This is true. Consider the midrash cited by Rashi on Genesis 25:22. When Rivka was pregnant, she felt the twins struggle within her. This was because when she passed the yeshiva of Sheim and Eiver, Yaakov would strive to get out, but when she passed a temple of idolatry, it was Eisav who would try to escape the womb. Each twin came pre-programmed with certain inclinations.
This doesn’t mean that one was predetermined to be good while the other was condemned to be evil. Every person has the ability to choose. In the Book of Kings, we see leaders who started out good but who later went astray, such as Yehoash who lost his way after his mentor died. Conversely, there were monarchs who didn’t start out strong but who turned themselves around, like Yoshiyahu, whom we are told performed an unprecedented teshuvah (repentance).
Despite our inclinations, each of us has the ability to choose good or evil. In the opening verses of parshas Re’eh, Moshe tells us, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing will be if you heed the commandments of Hashem your God, which I command you today. The curse will be if you do not heed the commandments of Hashem your God, turning aside from the way that I command you today…” (Deut. 11:26-28). Similarly, the Talmud tells us everything in life is up to God except for one thing: whether or not we listen to Him (Brachos 33b).
Naar hayisi gam zakanti…. some things change, others stay the same. Who we are? That doesn’t change. What we do? That’s completely up to us.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.