Psalm 120

I am peace; but when I speak, they are for war. (120:7)

Psalm 120 is the first of a series of 15 Psalms with the title “A song of (or for) ascent.” Mishnah Middot 2:5 suggests that the 15 steps ascending to the Temple Mount on the South side were built to correspond to the 15 Psalm, but the full implication of giving this title to this collection is unknown.

Peace is an important value in Judaism and other major religious traditions, but most have an escape clause that allows for defensive wars. Christianity is known to have pacifist denominations. Judaism is less known for this position, but there are some rabbis who find pacifism in Jewish sources.

It is a challenging position to hold, illustrated by this Psalm, because when the Psalmist asserts a position embracing peace at all costs, he says “they” attack. “They” might be fellow Jews who reject pacifism or “they” might be the enemy of Jews who see an opportunity to advance their position without resistance.

There are numerous adages in our American culture encouraging a non-pacifist outlook, such as:

  • The best defense is a good offense.
  • Speak softly and carry a big stick. Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Doveryai no proveryai, Trust but verify. Ronald Reagan used this aphorism, based on a Russian proverb, to defend a massive increase in military spending.

Projecting strength is connected with a willingness to attack while standing for peace is typically seen as a weakness. This is not necessarily the case. Some martial arts, such as aikido, judo, and t’ai chi emphasize defensive moves, embracing a philosophy of non-aggression and harmony.

I can also hear a hesitancy in the Psalmists words. “I am by nature peaceful,” he is saying, “but because they are war-like I have been forced to respond in kind.” Religion might attempt to cultivate softer, gentler attributes (middot) within us. There are, however, selfish people with large egos around us. Unless we cultivate middot of conviction alongside those of giving or compromising, others will take advantage of us. Not every person who speaks or acts in God’s name has fully embraced the humility that ought to go along with doing so.

The best approach is not to prejudge the other, not to assume that he or she is for war, but to put forward one’s peaceful nature and intentions whole-heartedly. At the same time, though, one ought to put forward one’s other fundamental convictions, for fairness, equality, human rights, and security. It is not peace but …. Rather, it is peace and ….

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2 thoughts on “Psalm 120

  1. Dear Rabbi:
    I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this piece you wrote but I don’t think one should depend on the “kindness of strangers” or other nations. Every time a nation hopes that the world will rescue them from an oppressor, think Ukraine, the world never comes through. You need to be able to defend yourself on the world scene as well as on the grade school playground, which in terms oh human interactions are very similar.

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    • The challenge I am speaking of is not in looking for a rescuer from oppression. It is what to do when you have enough power to beat your enemies into submission. The religious duty is to project strength and protect your own security, human rights, etc., but to stop short of a massive over-use of power. It is a delicate balance.

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