The Wind And The Ibex
(A re-post from two years ago, in honor of Rosh Chodesh. Chodesh Tov!)
Barchi Nafshi, the chapter of Tehillim that we recite on Rosh Chodesh, is one of my favorite chapters. It's a glorious description of the beautiful harmony of God's universe. There's a wonderfully poetic account of the weather functioning, and the animals going about their business; the stork nesting in the cedar tree, the ibex on the high hills and the hyraxes hiding in the rocks (ironically, there is a hyrax watching me as I write these words. Strange but true.) Man, too, is mentioned, as an integral part of the natural world, harvesting its produce for his needs and benefit. And there is the humbling description of how the mighty leviathan was created, as God's plaything, to sport in the ocean; a verse for which I gained new appreciation on one memorable boat trip, as you can read about on the archives of my other blog.
It's just wonderful to think that these praises of the natural world, composed thousands of years ago, are still being recited today! Our heritage is extraordinary. And, far from dying out, it is constantly being reinvigorated in new ways. About ten years ago, my wife purchased a video in Mea Shearim entitled "Barchi Nafshi." It was a montage of video clips from National Geographic channel and other sources, depicting the creatures and processes described in Barchi Nafshi. The montage was set to music - a combination of Jewish music, classical music, and the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans, with Barchi Nafshi being recited in the background. Sure, it was amateurish, but I loved it.
The Kolmus Journal of Torah Thought, published with last week's Mishpachah magazine, also finds Barchi Nafshi to be inspirational, but for a different reason:
David HaMelech writes, "Oseh malachav ruchos - He makes winds his messengers" (Tehillim 104:4). Again, science has borne out what David HaMelech wrote a few thousand years ago. We now know that weather phenomena are fundamentally rooted in the velocity, force, and direction of the global winds, which factor heavily in the fickle nature of weather prediction, because winds are nearly impossible to predict.
Later, the article has an excellent discussion of some of the wonders of the weather system, which is what Barchi Nafshi actually tells us should inspire us. But before that, the author draws inspiration from the fact that David HaMelech said something that was only recently discovered by modern science. While such inspiration is certainly not the point of Barchi Nafshi--and to focus upon it is to miss the point--is it true? Does Barchi Nafshi reveal that David HaMelech knew the discoveries of modern science that were otherwise unknown in the ancient world?
Well, first of all, it should be noted that the verses preceding and following this verse are certainly not congruent with our knowledge of the universe. Verse 2 describes God spreading out the heavens like a canopy. No doubt, people today will insist that this is poetic, but this is simply imposing modern conceptions upon the text. Certainly Chazal understood it to mean that the heavens are a solid dome over the earth, as I shall document in the near future. Then verse 5 describes how God "established the earth on its foundation; it shall never move." As an earlier article in Kolmus observes, there were Acharonim who insisted that this is literally true, and dismissed Copernicus as a result. In fact, the list of Acharonim who took this stance is far more extensive than the article notes, as I shall document in a future essay. The only suggestion that it was not literal came from those who had already been convinced of the correctness of the Copernican revolution, and who decided to innovate a new understanding of the verse in order to make it harmonious with modern science. So it is hardly accurate to cite Tehillim 104 as an example of how the revelations of modern science were known thousands of years ago. It's better to cite it as an example for the approach of Rav Kook, based upon Rishonim such as Rambam, that the prophets presented their timeless spiritual messages within the framework of their ancient worldview of the universe--and in this case, an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of this framework.
But there's another problem with the article's claim, in the very passuk being quoted. The passuk says, "He makes winds His messengers." Now, this could mean two things. It could mean that winds are His messengers, just like all sorts of other things are God's messengers. But the article in Kolmus takes it in a different sense; to mean that winds are the primary agents in the weather system. I don't know if this is true or not. But what I do know is that the author has conveniently omitted the second half of the passuk! The passuk continues, "His servants are flashing fire (i.e. lightning)." Now, either this means that lightning is the co-primary agent in the weather system--which is clearly not the case--or, what I consider much more likely, that the pesukim are not at all discussing primary agents in weather control, merely the fact that all nature does God's bidding.
We shouldn't be using shtick to make Barchi Nafshi inspirational. Especially when the shtick doesn't even work. Barchi Nafshi doesn't need it; it is already a beautiful, inspirational tefillah. Unfortunately, most Jews today are too urbanized and exiled to really appreciate the descriptions of nature in Barchi Nafshi. I'll bet that most people reading this don't even know what some of the animals in Barchi Nafshi actually are. To compensate, I'll conclude with an incredible video from the Life series which illustrates the verse, "[He made] the high hills for the ibex":