In Psalms 12:2, the narrator turns to God, beseeching him: “Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.” The chief flaw the narrator finds among the people he speaks of is found in the nature of the words they speak: “They speak falsehood every one with his neighbor; with flattering lip, and with a double heart, do they speak” (Ps. 12:3). The narrator thus wishes: “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speaketh proud things!” (12:4).
For their part, these mendacious individuals believe that their source of strength can be found in their verbal ability: “Who have said: ‘Our tongue will we make mighty; our lips are with us: who is lord over us?’” (12:5). But God goes on to silence the people and to issue a declaration: “‘For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will set him in safety at whom they puff’” (12:6).
The narrator then emphasizes the sharp contrast between the words of the liars, which lead to injustice, and God’s words: “The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver tried in a crucible on the earth, refined seven times.” God will protect the poor, proclaims the narrator: “Thou wilt keep them, O Lord; Thou wilt preserve us from this generation forever” (12:7-8).
The narrator is troubled by an unjust world, yet he believes that one day God will utter his mighty words, will reveal the purity of those words and will redeem the world.
The sages consider Psalm 12 to be illustrative when considering the opening of this week’s portion, Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23), which lists various commandments under the rubric, “Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron” (Leviticus 21:1) and which, they argue in the midrashic work Vayikra Rabbah, offers an example of God’s pure words. At the end of the midrashic passage, two rabbis argue over the interpretation of the final verse in Psalm 12, which describes the world that will exist after God redeems it: “The wicked walk on every side, when vileness is exalted [keroom] among the sons of men” (Ps. 12:9).
“Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah discuss the words, ‘The wicked walk on every side.’ Rabbi Judah says: These words should be read, ‘The righteous walk around the wicked.’ How are we to picture this scene? When the righteous emerge from heaven and look at the wicked who have been sentenced to spend the after-life in hell, they will rejoice, as it is written, ‘And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men’ (Isaiah 66:24). At this moment, the righteous will praise God for all the suffering he inflicted upon them in this world, as it is written, ‘And in that day thou shalt say: “I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord; for though thou was angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortest me” (Isaiah 12:1).’ When will that happen? ‘… when vileness is exalted among the sons of men’ – that will occur when God raises up the vineyard that has been treated so disgracefully in his world, for God’s vineyard [‘kerem,’ written in Hebrew in the same way as ‘keroom’] is Israel, as it is written, ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel’” (Isaiah 5:7).
The midrash continues: “Rabbi Nehemiah replies: Rabbi Judah! How much longer will you distort the biblical text? The phrase in Psalms should rather be read: ‘The wicked walk around the righteous.’ How are we to envision such a scene? When the wicked rise up from hell and look at the righteous who are sitting so tranquilly in heaven, their souls will writhe with pain and anger, as it is written, ‘The wicked shall see it, and be vexed’ (Ps. 112:10). When will that happen? ‘… when vileness is exalted [among the sons of men]’ – that is, when God raises up the commandments that have been treated so disgracefully in his world.
“‘Why were you stoned to death?’ [one of the righteous will be asked]. ‘Because I had my son circumcised.’ ‘Why were you burned at the stake?’ [a second righteous person will be asked]. ‘Because I observed the Sabbath.’ ‘Why were you executed?’ [a third righteous person will be asked]. ‘Because [on Passover] I ate unleavened bread.’
“’Why were you lashed with a whip?’ [other righteous persons will be asked]. ‘Because [on Sukkot] I built a sukkah [the festival booth].’ ‘Because [on Sukkot] I held the lulav [palm branch].’ ‘Because I put on tefillin.’ ‘Because I wore a tallit.’ ‘Because I did what my heavenly father wants.’ As it is written: ‘And one shall say unto him: “What are these wounds between thy hands?” Then he shall answer: ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’ (Zechariah 13:6). ‘And these troubles [each of the righteous will say] led me to love our heavenly father [God]’” (Vayikra Rabbah 32:2).
Why does Rabbi Nehemiah accuse Rabbi Judah of distorting the meaning of a biblical verse – namely, Psalm 12:9? Indeed, the latter’s explanation as to when the world will be redeemed is more logical than the former’s explanation. According to Rabbi Nehemiah, redemption will take place when God raises up the disgraced commandments and turns them into important ones. However, the word “commandments” does not even appear in Psalm 12:9.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Nehemiah’s interpretation provides a glimpse into the lives of the sages during the era of the Roman Empire, when there were strict decrees forbidding Jews from observing such religious commandments as circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and consumption of unleavened bread on Passover.
Rabbi Nehemiah argues that the world will be redeemed when God redeems the disgraced commandments. The wicked – that is, the Roman oppressors – will ask the righteous why they have been rewarded after life with a tranquil existence in heaven, and the righteous will reply that they have been rewarded for dying as martyrs who sanctified the holy name.
Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, both of whom were students of Rabbi Akiva and lived during the period of Rome’s anti-Jewish prohibitions, sit in the beit hamidrash (study hall), hiding from the Roman oppressor. Awaiting God’s punishment to be meted out on the Romans – who are the evil ones liars referred to in the beginning of Psalm 12 – the rabbis devote themselves to the forbidden study of God’s precious words. In their homilies concerning Psalm 12:9, they fantasize about what the world will look like after redemption.
Rabbi Judah offers an interpretation that reflects the classical approach to reward and punishment: The righteous will one day see their persecutors punished and will then understand that God inflicted suffering upon them in this world so that, in the next world, they will reside in heaven. Rabbi Nehemiah rebukes Rabbi Judah for what he considers to be an overly simplistic reading of Psalm 12:9 and for distorting its meaning because, claims Rabbi Nehemiah, the suffering inflicted on the righteous does not come from God but rather from the wicked – namely, the Romans.
Redemption is thus characterized not by the fact that we will understand the suffering experienced in this world, but by the fact that those who have made us suffer will eventually attain understanding. They will ask us why we have been rewarded and are now in heaven, and we will reply that we are being rewarded for having been forced to endanger our lives through observance of commandments that our oppressors forbade.
Psalm 12:9, Rabbi Nehemiah teaches Rabbi Judah, must not be interpreted in a simplistic, standard fashion. Instead, Rabbi Nehemiah argues, its interpretation must be sufficiently sharp, because this verse is the sole weapon we have to use against our enemies.