Excerpted from Music Made in Heaven
This book is about Sefer Tehilim. It is about Sefer Tehilim, even though Sefer Tehilim will hardly be mentioned. The Sefer that will be mentioned in almost every chapter and that will provide the many passages we will study in great depth is Sefer Shmuel. Now I know that this does not make much sense to you, dear reader, and it is hard to explain without going into the kind of detail that does not belong in a brief introductory chapter. I will give you just a short paragraph here, and for the rest I ask you to trust me that, as you make your way through Music Made in Heaven, everything will turn out all right.
My goal is to answer a question that seems to me to be very compelling. It is this. Why does Sefer Shmuel not quote any of the Tehilim that, as their introductory verse often testifies, were said in the context of events very carefully spelled out in Sefer Shmuel? Telling the story and leaving out the fact that it served Dovid as inspiration for one of his immortal compositions is giving a very truncated account. An incomplete picture lacks certain dimensions of the truth. A truth that is not rounded off is a half truth. How can Sefer Shmuel be satisfied with teaching us half truths?
I will propose my answer to this question in the final chapter of Music Made in Heaven. It will be built around an assumption that I will make concerning the respective characters of Sefer Shmuel and Sefer Tehilim. Sefer Shmuel, in its own terms, will be shown to be complete and lacking nothing. I will argue that Sefer Shmuel and Sefer Tehilim occupy two entirely different worlds. The points of reference of the one are not those of the other. A chapter of Tehilim in the narrative parts of Shmuel would be like a total stranger at a wedding—he just somehow does not seem to fit in.
It is in this sense that, as I said above, Music Made in Heaven is about Sefer Tehilim, although Sefer Tehilim is hardly mentioned. We will reach certain conclusions about the nature of Sefer Shmuel. Once we have established that, we will suggest that, by its own nature, Sefer Tehilim has no place there. We will arrive at conclusions about Sefer Tehilim that grow out of its incompatibility with Sefer Shmuel.
I hope this short explanation has not discouraged you from reading on. As I said before, by the time you get to the final chapter, all will be clear.
Since Sefer Tehilim really comes up short in this book, I want to use the rest of this introduction to share some thoughts with you about Dovid in his capacity as the sweet singer of Israel’s songs (II Shmuel 23:1).
AWAKEN O MY SOUL
AWAKEN O HARP AND LYRE
I WISH TO AROUSE THE VERY DAWN
At II Shmuel 23:1 Dovid introduces himself as the one who lends sweetness to Israel’s songs. The compositions that make up Sefer Tehilim apparently have a very special sweetness to them. Let us see whether we can trace the source of this unusual characterization.
Rav Ashi taught, “Until midnight Dovid would immerse himself in Torah studies.
From midnight onwards he busied himself with songs and praises.” (Berachos 3b)
Dovid slept very little. He seems to have taken occasional catnaps during the day—never more than sixty breaths at a time—but that would end with nightfall. The night was to be dedicated to Torah and Tehilim. The change from the one to the other took place at midnight, as the Gemara quoted above makes clear.
The Gemara wonders how Dovid would know that midnight had arrived and that it was time to enter the world of song. Here is the answer:
Dovid was always able to tell when it was midnight . . . there was a harp suspended above his bed and when midnight arrived a north wind would stimulate the harp to play by itself. Upon hearing its music Dovid would immediately rise and busy himself with Torah until day would break.
Most of us have heard many times about this harp that was suspended above Dovid’s bed. Until I happened across it recently, I do not recall ever asking myself why this was significant. I can’t believe that it was simply an old-fashioned alarm clock installed to alert Dovid that the exact moment of midnight had come. It seems so unlikely that it was of paramount importance that Dovid should switch from learning to songs and praises at an exact moment. Why would a few minutes earlier or later have made such a difference?
When this question struck me, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to look into Dovid’s skill as a musician. I began wondering why the Tehilim needed to be set to music. We know none of the original tunes that Dovid composed and in spite of that we are greatly inspired by the words standing on their own. So the music seems to be a luxury with which we can dispense. Why were Tehilim set to music?
And yet, the case can be made that music on its own, even when not set to words, is perhaps the choicest form of praising the Ribono shel Olam. I have heard the point made by the late Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik that it is remarkable that Tehilim 150, the very last mizmor in Sefer Tehilim, appears to eschew words completely. We are called upon to praise God with all manner of instruments, with not even a hint that these should accompany some verbal composition. It makes a strange ending indeed to a book that records 149 poems. Rav Soloveichik suggested that this mizmor articulated Dovid’s sense that to You silence is the greatest praise, that the most inspired words must inevitably fall short of what really needs to be said. The less said, the better; the more inspired music we can draw from our instruments, the more untainted will our praises be.
I decided to check into what TaNaCh had to say about Dovid the musician as opposed to Dovid the author of Tehilim. The place to look, so it seemed to me, was back at the very beginning, when Shaul’s advisers suggested that Dovid’s music might help the king out of his depression. I looked at that parashah and was struck by a peculiarity. Here are two of the relevant p’sukim from I Shmuel 16:16 and 23.
16. . . . Let them look for a man who is able to play music on a harp and it will be when you will suffer from an evil spirit from God, he will be able to play with his hands and you will feel better.
23. It came about that whenever the spirit of God came upon Shaul, David would take the harp and play with his hands and the spirit of Shaul improved and the evil spirit would leave him.
Why in these two verses is there a stress upon the fact that Dovid would play with his hands? It cannot be that this is just a manner of speaking, since, when the servants suggested that a musician be found, they said simply, a man who is able to play music on the harp. They said nothing of the fact that the musician would be using his hands. Why then make an issue of it when it came to Dovid?
Let us now return to the question of the harp hanging over Dovid’s bed. We wondered what might have been the point of such an arrangement.
I cannot know what music the north wind plucked from that famous harp nor have I any idea how it sounded. However, clearly it was celestial music, unlike any composed by man. I believe that Dovid waited until midnight to switch from Torah learning to composing his Tehilim because he waited to be inspired by the heavenly music he would hear as the north wind wrought its magic.
If we are on the right track, then we have a ready explanation for the fact that Shaul’s advisers made an issue out of the fact that Dovid would be playing his harp with his hands. They had heard Dovid play and they knew that his music was different from any other they had ever heard. Dovid had eavesdropped on the music of the angels—every night his trusted harp had marked midnight with music sent from heaven. Shaul’s advisers could not contain their wonder that human hands could create such music. It is this that they stressed to Shaul.
At the beginning of this section we wondered whether we could have some idea of the sweetness with which Dovid was able to imbue Israel’s songs. What was it that lent Tehilim their magic? I think we have the answer. In his Tehilim, with his harp, Dovid was able to bring a little piece of heaven down to us.