The Longest Chapter in The BibleBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Psalm 117 was the shortest chapter in the entire Tanach; Psalm 119, at 176 verses, is by far the longest. (We are SO hitting just the high points in this synopsis!) Psalm 119 is another alphabetical acrostic; we are dividing the sections by letter primarily because of the Psalm’s length.
Alef: David starts by praising those who follow G-d’s Torah; they are careful to avoid sin. David prays that he may be inclined towards doing G-d’s will, which he is sure he will never regret. He will thank G-d when he learns the perfection of His Torah. David intends to keep the mitzvos to the fullest so that G-d should never have a reason to forsake him.
Beis: David asks (rhetorically) how a young person can purify his lifestyle. He responds by saying, “Follow G-d’s word” (i.e., the Torah). David worked hard to find G-d, so he prays to never stray from doing His will. “Blessed are You, G-d,” says David. “Teach me Your laws!” (This verse, “Baruch Atah Hashem, lamdeini chukecha,” can be recited as the conclusion of a blessing started in error – see Mishna Brura 114:32 for details.) David rejoices over the words of G-d’s Torah, occupying himself with them at all times.
Gimel: David asks G-d to treat him well so that he might live to serve Him. He wants to delve into the mysteries of Torah. Time on Earth is short, so he doesn’t want to waste it! G-d punishes those who disregard His will; David asks to have troubles removed from him since he is faithful.
Daled: David says that his soul is bogged down by material concerns of the world; he wishes to be elevated spiritually. He wants to spend his life learning Torah so that he can better know G-d. Since David has chosen G-d as his path in life, he hopes that G-d will clear the way for his success.
Hey: If G-d will consent to show David the depth of His words, David will cherish each step of the journey. He strives to understand Torah so that he will fully appreciate it. David prays that G-d point his heart to love of Torah, rather than love of wealth. David may not be perfect, but he loves G-d’s Torah and he strives to fulfill it. He has survived to do so through G-d’s righteousness.
Vav: David prays for G-d’s kindness and the salvation He has promised. David will then disprove those who did not believe. He asks to be able to study Torah always and he will walk in its ways. David will fearlessly speak words of Torah in front of the kings of other nations because he loves G-d’s commandments.
Zayin: David asks that G-d recall His promise to establish David’s dynasty. This keeps David going through the tough times. When enemies taunt him, David thinks of the Torah and is comforted. Thinking about the fate of those who scorn the Torah terrifies him. G-d’s commandments are music to David’s ears.
Ches: G-d is David’s chosen portion, for which he prayed hard. He made an evaluation of his options in life, then he turned and ran toward G-d. No matter who opposed him, David kept his “eyes on the prize.”
Tes: G-d did good things for David, His faithful servant, as He had promised. David asks to learn good understanding of the mitzvos so that he can explain them to others. Before he learned Torah, David made mistakes. Now that he has learned, he is able to observe it properly. David is glad for the punishments he suffered, as they served to direct him to the proper path. It’s better to have Torah than silver and gold.
Yud: G-d’s “hands” made David and prepared him for his role in life. He asks that G-d likewise help him understand the Torah. The others who have faith in G-d will rejoice that their king is properly observant and sets a good example for the nation. David knows that G-d is righteous and that He punished him with good reason. Now, David hopes to see kindness and mercy so that he can dedicate his life to Torah. David prays that the righteous who spurned him because of his sin will return.
Kaf: David longs to see G-d’s salvation. No matter his problems, he has never forgotten G-d. How long does a person live? (Not very.) David has a lot to accomplish in a limited amount of time, so he hopes that G-d will help him not waste time defending himself from detractors. If G-d sustains him, David will be able to keep His Torah.
Lamed: G-d’s word endures in Heaven and He is consistent throughout the generations. He made the Earth, which follows the laws He established. If not for G-d’s Torah, David would have been destroyed by his troubles. He gives himself wholly to G-d, Who saved Him. His Torah is the only thing without limit.
Mem: David says that he loves the Torah and talks about it all day long. Sincerity in Torah study makes him wiser than his enemies, who may be learned, but they have ulterior motives. David learns from his teachers and the Sages, and he keeps his feet off the path of evil so that he doesn’t stray. G-d’s word is sweeter than honey, so he spurns any false thing that may deviate from G-d’s truth.
Nun: G-d’s word is like a light at David’s feet, illuminating the path. David will keep G-d’s laws, as he has promised, if only G-d will sustain him to do so. David hopes that G-d will be pleased with his words and grant him success in his learning.No matter the perils he faced in life, David never forgot G-d; he has dedicated his life to doing G-d’s will.
Samech: David says that he can’t stand people who can’t commit to G-d; he dedicates himself wholeheartedly. G-d’s word protects David, so his enemies should just leave him alone so he can study Torah in peace. G-d punishes sinners with a fate that terrifies David, helping to keep him on the straight path.
Ayin: David has acted justly, so he prays that G-d will not abandon him to those who persecute him. David longs to see the salvation G-d has promised. He is faithful, so he prays that G-d grant him a better understanding of His ways. Sometimes we must take extraordinary measures to act for G-d. Watching those who flout Torah makes David appreciate it even more. He sees the beauty in every aspect of it and declares it to others.
Pey: David says that G-d’s laws are wondrous; simple people are enlightened by them. David swallows words of Torah like a starving man gobbles down food. Therefore, he prays to merit the reward of those who love G-d and that his enemies will have no power over him. David wants to better understand Torah because he always weeps bitter tears when something takes him away from it.
Tzadi: G-d is righteous and His judgments are by definition upright. He commanded the mitzvos and David is pained whenever he sees them ignored. G-d’s word is perfect and David loves it. It is only through Torah study that a person – or the nation – might merit life.
Kuf: David has cried out to G-d; if he is saved, he will be able to observe G-d’s laws. Meanwhile, lawless people are approaching evil, which draws them farther away from Torah. But G-d is always close at hand to those who seek Him; His Torah is true and eternal.
Resh: David asks G-d to see how troubled he is and to grant him relief, since he has never forgotten Him. He was persecuted by traitors, but he only objected that they spurned G-d. David acted this way because the first of the Ten Commandments is to acknowledge G-d, Whose Torah is eternal truth!
Sin: Princes of the nation persecuted David for no good reason, but he wasn’t scared of them. The only thing that makes him afraid is the thought that he might fail to fulfill G-d’s word. David rejoices in Torah like others might in financial treasure. He hates falsehood, which is the opposite of Torah. David praises G-d continuously throughout the day. (The Psalm says seven times a day, but most commentators take that as literary style for “many times.”) There is peace, not obstacles, for those who cherish Torah. David loves G-d’s laws and keeps them, as G-d is aware of our every move.
Tav: David prays that this Psalm reaches G-d and that his request for success in Torah is granted. When it is, David’s mouth will overflow with praise of G-d and he will teach G-d’s word to all. He asks G-d to assist him in observing His Torah, which is the only thing on his mind. If he survives, he will use his time on Earth to praise G-d. Now, he is like a lost sheep. He hopes the Shepherd will retrieve him, since he has always remembered G-d’s Torah.
It’s interesting to note that this, the longest Psalm, has 176 verses. The longest parsha in the Torah, parshas Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), also contains 176 verses, while Baba Basra, the longest tractate in the Talmud, has 176 pages. (As always, make of that what you will.)