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Ronen's Yahrzeit and Psalm 51: David's Prayer for His Dying Infant

Psalm 51 begins with a context: "When Nathan the prophet came to [David] after he had come to Batsheva."

Taking for granted (for now) that David wrote the Psalms, I find it helpful to try to understand at what point in his life might have been written. Here, we are told. You know the story: in II Samuel 11, David sees Batsheva, invites her to the palace, sleeps with her, and she becomes pregnant. David sends Batsheva's husband Uriah to the front lines, where he dies. Nathan the Prophet comes to David to rebuke him (II Samuel 12:1-10), comparing David to the rich owner of a large flock who steals the pet sheep of a poor family who only has one. I remember learning this story in middle school, and then in college, where the punchline of the story is, "You are the man!" as Nathan reveals the meaning of his parable. The real ending? (II Samuel 12:13-14) "God forgives you; you shall not die; but the infant is destined to perish."

"David," says Nathan, "you are the only one responsible for your infant son's otherwise inexplicable death."

The infant falls ill, and in II Samuel 12:16, we read that David prays for the boy, who dies at seven days old. In the context of that story, David says very little; in Psalm 51, we can imagine that this is the complex and heartfelt plea David offers in this moment: guilty, pleading, hopeful, angry.

3) חָנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ךָ כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי׃

Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits Your faithfulness; in keeping with Your abundant compassion, blot out my transgressions.

5) כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד׃

[...] for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin.

David pleads with God: I know that I am guilty; please accept that my self-awareness is cause for me to change and punishment enough.

6) לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨ ׀ חָטָאתִי֮ וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי לְ֭מַעַן תִּצְדַּ֥ק בְּדָבְרֶ֗ךָ תִּזְכֶּ֥ה בְשָׁפְטֶֽךָ׃

Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are just in Your sentence, and right in Your judgment.

7) הֵן־בְּעָו֥וֹן חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי וּ֝בְחֵ֗טְא יֶֽחֱמַ֥תְנִי אִמִּֽי׃

Indeed I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.

God, I acknowledge You as the True Judge, and You will do what You think is Right. David's evocation here of his own birth is striking, particularly as he seems to be trying to make sense of his own child's neonatal experience.

10) תַּ֭שְׁמִיעֵנִי שָׂשׂ֣וֹן וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה תָּ֝גֵ֗לְנָה עֲצָמ֥וֹת דִּכִּֽיתָ׃

[...] Let me hear tidings of joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed exult.

David here strikes a briefly hopeful note. Is it possible that You, God, will hear me as I sit considering this dying infant, and You will take note? Will you let me hear the joy and gladness that comes from the announcement to the world of my child's birth? Let him not perish before his time.

12) לֵ֣ב טָ֭הוֹר בְּרָא־לִ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְר֥וּחַ נָ֝כ֗וֹן חַדֵּ֥שׁ בְּקִרְבִּֽי׃

[...] Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit.

Understand, God, that I feel guilty. That what I have done has caused this. You, God, can help me to do better.

13) אַל־תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me.

The verse here is picked up in High Holy Day liturgy, in the piyyut (liturgical poem) we call Shema Koleinu. David cries out, God, do not abandon me; further, do not shut down the channel which has been our open line of communication because of my transgression. This is when I need you most.

14) הָשִׁ֣יבָה לִּ֭י שְׂשׂ֣וֹן יִשְׁעֶ֑ךָ וְר֖וּחַ נְדִיבָ֣ה תִסְמְכֵֽנִי׃

Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me.

15) אֲלַמְּדָ֣ה פֹשְׁעִ֣ים דְּרָכֶ֑יךָ וְ֝חַטָּאִ֗ים אֵלֶ֥יךָ יָשֽׁוּבוּ׃

I will teach transgressors Your ways, that sinners may return to You.

God, I am ready to celebrate that You turned this around for me. When you do, I will not only mend my own ways, but teach other how to celebrate Your glory. I will seek out others who have done wrong and I will bring them back to You.

16) הַצִּ֘ילֵ֤נִי מִדָּמִ֨ים ׀ אֱ‍ֽלֹהִ֗ים אֱלֹהֵ֥י תְּשׁוּעָתִ֑י תְּרַנֵּ֥ן לְ֝שׁוֹנִ֗י צִדְקָתֶֽךָ׃

Save me from bloodguilt, O God, God, my deliverer, that I may sing forth Your beneficence.

Does David feel guilty about the guilt of sending Uriah to the front lines? Or does his bloodguilt extend to the son he will not ever raise? God, let my tongue sing joyfully of Your righteousness. ("Sing joyfully" is a form of the Hebrew root shared in the name Ronen.)

17) אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.

I am stunned to find this verse, with which we begin each Amidah and which is also reflected in the leader's supplication on High Holy Days entitled Ochila La'El, originates here. God, even in times that I do not want to praise You because my experience limits my willingness to do so, "open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise."

The Psalm concludes with a few more verses indicating God's want more of contrition and prayer begat of brokenheartedness than sacrifice.

As I write this at 1:33 PM on the 28th of Elul, I'm breathing through the awareness that it was just one year ago, short one day, at this time, that my life would be shattered. It was Shabbat, and I was holding my son for the last day he and I would have together. I wonder what that version of me would have said if she had known what was to come. I wonder, if I had had notice like David had, prayer would have come differently to me at that time or if I would have said something different.

I wonder about the guilt I'm meant to feel over what happened, rational or irrational. The Bible certainly makes the point strongly, "When babies die, their parents are to blame" (see Exodus 23:16). I sit with the guilt and the shame, and the knowledge that the world, and God, have evolved. I live a Torah-informed life, and still I know that the "God of the Old Testament" isn't the same personality of God with whom I am currently in relationship.

This year has been quite the journey of study, growth, anger, recovery, guilt, theology, support, prayer. I remember a year ago, but I barely recognize the mind of the person I was then. As I prepare to enter into Ronen's yahrzeit, and immediately thereafter to lead a community through the High Holy Days, I reflect David's statement, uttered first in the moment he prayed for the infant he too knew would die, but stated so many times from the mouths of praying Jews through the generations: "O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise." I can do it, but only with Your help.

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Your community embraces you. We salute you as your move along this journey. We are indebted to your ability to share these heartfelt aspects. I know I speak for others in expressing the hope that you feel our embrace. We want you to know you are not alone

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