Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, “They are a senseless people; they would not know My ways.” (95:10)
The next five Psalms (95 – 99) are the first five Psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalah Shabbat is a service created in the mid-16th century by the mystics of the Northern Israeli city of Tzvat (Safed). It is structured around a series of seven Psalms from 95 though 99 followed by Psalm 29, leading up to Psalm 92, titled “A song for the sabbath day.” We might imagine that the progression of seven corresponds to the seven mystical sefirot of God’s attributes from Hesed (love) to Malkhut (Sovereignty), also known as Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of God who we welcome as the Shabbat Queen. We might also imagine that each Psalm corresponds to a day of the week from Sunday through Shabbat.
The intention set by this Psalm is Sunday, the first day of the week, and the Divine quality of Hesed. The speaker in our verse is God, exhibiting patience in the presence of a rebellious people. Actually, 40 years is not such a long time in the existence of God. If “A thousand years is like a day in your sight,” (Psalm 90), then 40 years in God’s time is the equivalent of 57 minutes and 36 seconds in human time. So imagine suffering the presence of a very annoying person for 57 minutes and 36 seconds. Imagine listening to him whine and complain about this injustice or that ache and pain, droning on and on, but continuing to pay attention for the full time. Having patience. This is the lesson from our verse. If God can endure something for 40 years without walking away, I can endure something for just under an hour with a loving smile on my face.
On a calendar directed by Shabbat (such as in Israel), Sunday is a workday. It is also a long time until the restful peace of Shabbat returns. For the next six days, we face all of our problems at work and other weekday problems. Psalm 95 reminds us to swallow a loving dose of patience on Sunday to successfully manage the next six days until Shabbat arrives.
The voice of Adonai breaks cedars; Adonai shatters the cedars of Lebanon … The voice of Adonai kindles flames of fire; the voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness … the voice of Adonai causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare ….” (Psalm 29:5, 7, 9)
I am fascinated by the description of God’s voice – the power of a tremendous thunderstorm, causing the mightiest of trees to lose branches and even topple over. Not only thunder but lightening as well, so loud that the sound can be felt in one’s core even more than by one’s ears. I’m not sure if the hind (deer) gives birth prematurely out of fright, or whether this is a reference to some other biological phenomenon – but the image is of God’s voice stripping both animal and vegetable bare.
Psalm 29 is sung liturgically twice – during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome to Sabbath, and on Shabbat mornings when processing around the congregation and putting the Torah away.
The pairing of this Psalm with the Torah service makes a kind of sense, but is a bit backwards. God’s thunderous voice is associated with revelation of Torah. It would make more sense if we chanted these words when removing the Torah from the ark rather than after. The verses we chant when carrying the Torah in procession at the beginning of the Torah service focus on God’s majesty and beauty, which could just well be chanted when putting the Torah away as a response to revelation.
The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a serious of seven Psalms, once for each day of the week, followed by Lekha Dodi, a song welcoming the Sabbath queen. I wonder if the series of Psalms leading up to Shabbat is intended to build up to the revelation of the Divine Presence, which would explain why Psalm 29 immediately precedes Lekha Dodi. However, I have never really understood the progression of Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms (except for Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, right after Lekha Dodi), so my conjecture might be completely off base. If you have other ideas, I’d love to read about them in the comments on my blog at EmbodiedTorah.Wordpress.com.