NOTE: For a PDF of this segment, please click here. This will enable you to print out the entire text of the article. [Rev 5]
Mizmor 119 consists of 176 pesukim arranged in 22 sets of 8 pesukim each. Each of these 22 sets is identified by one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That letter appears as the first letter in the eight pesukim in its set. For the purpose of our presentation in the NAFSHI project, we have treated each of these sets of 8 pesukim as a complete segment of the mizmor and we have identified the entire segment by the number of its first pasuk. Thus, the Aleph segment is 119-001, the Beis segment is 119-009, and the Gimel segment is 119-017.
Key Concepts of the Aleph Pesukim (001 – 008)
(א) אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי דָרֶךְ הַהֹלְכִים בְּתוֹרַת ה‘:
(1) Fortunate are those on the path of wholeness who walk with the Torah of Hashem.
Aleph 1: Wholeness – David begins Mizmor 119 by singing the praises of the life that is lived in devotion to Hashem. Such a life involves a wide variety of practices and ideas, but they all share a unity of common purpose, which is serving our Creator. That unity is described here in the first pasuk of the mizmor as a “wholeness” since a total commitment to every one of the elements of avodas Hashem is essential in achieving a righteous life.
To live a life of wholeness the individual embarks on a path of virtuous behavior and endeavors to stay on this path throughout his life. As he walks on the path of wholeness he can expect to encounter many challenges and he may even stumble but his overall progress will be upward, to become a better person each day of his life.
All of the thoughts of this mizmor are based on single foundation. This is the Torah that Hashem gave us to reveal His expectations for the Jewish people. The teachings of the Torah are implemented in the Jew’s daily life in the form of mitzvos that express particular elements of service to Hashem.
The special importance of Mizmor 119 is suggested by the fact that it is the largest mizmor in all of Tehillim. The pesukim are arranged in groups of eight, with each group beginning with the same letter. The sequential arrangement of these letters emphasizes the concept of unity and wholeness, which is the theme of the entire mizmor. Every pasuk contributes to the whole, just as every prescribed practice and idea of the Torah is an essential element of the whole.
When a person performs any mitzvah in the optimum manner, he should be thinking about the special categories of observance that it reflects. The full scope and depth of such an exercise for all of the 613 mitzvos is probably beyond the normal ability of any human being, but is something that a Jew should aspire to. In that sense observance of the Torah may be viewed as a journey on the path of wholeness rather than a destination.
(ב) אַשְׁרֵי נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו בְּכָל לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ:
(2) Fortunate are they who safeguard His testimonies. They seek Him with all their heart.
Aleph 2: The Testimonies – In Mizmor 119 David presents a unique way of thinking about the mitzvos. Some are focused on the historical aspects of Hashem’s relationship with his people. These are called the Testimonies. Others are focused on the basic principles of Hashem’s relationship with the world and with mankind. These are called the Doctrines. There are a number of other such categories, but it is important to remember that the categories are really aspects of mitzvos rather than unique lists of mitzvos. Any mitzvah may incorporate a Testimony and a Doctrine.
David introduces us to the major categories of mitzvos during trhe course of the first eight pesukim of the mizmor. These pesukim all begin with the letter aleph to signify their importance in the overall scheme of thought that David is giving us.
How do we make the transition from an abstract Torah of ideals and laws into the reality of day-to-day experience? Hashem has given us the means to actually live a Torah life by incorporating into the Torah the major element called the Testimonies ( עֵדֹת ). These are the narratives and mitzvos that bear witness to the Creation of the world and the historical events of our Jewish national experience.
Our forefathers who witnessed these events passed the oral record along with the written Torah to their children and grandchildren. After thousands of years the continued existence of our nation is itself part of this unique legacy.
Every Jew is charged with the responsibility of serving as a living link in the chain of Torah truth and carrying forward the gift that he has received from the generation that came before him. As the stories of the past are told and retold they give meaning not only to the events of the past but to the events that we experience every day.
(ג) אַף לֹא פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ:
(3) They have not even committed an injustice, for they have walked in His ways.
Aleph 3: Injustice – The Creator has given mankind an instinctive sense of right and wrong. This sense enables us to recognize behavior that violates our moral and ethical values. Hashem considers the selfish attitude that motivates such behavior to be offensive even if it is not an outright sin.
People who make a conscious effort to stay on the path of virtue will be aware when they are tempted to stray from that path. They will resist the temptation and will bend over backwards to do the right thing.
(ד) אַתָּה צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד:
(4) You have issued Your doctrines to be faithfully observed.
Aleph 4: The Doctrines – The Torah is a sacred trust that Hashem has given to teach us how He wants us to live our lives. It presents the prescribed rules of behavior in the form of mitzvos. Some of the mitzvos are Testimonies, as discussed above (Aleph 2). Another way of grouping the mitzvos is to consider those that we are called upon to perform primarily with our minds rather than with our bodies. These Doctrines ( פִּקֻּדִים ) teach the basic principles of Hashem’s relationship with the world and with mankind. They also instruct man in what his attitude should be towards Hashem and to other men.
An example of the mitzvos that we must perform with our thoughts is the obligation to be aware at all times that Hashem exists. As presented by the sefer Chovos Halevavos, the mitzvos of the mind include all of the thoughts and ideas that we are required to have at specific times throughout our lives, but not necessarily all the time.
The word פִּקֻּדִים is associated with the word פִּקָּדוֹן , meaning a deposit. This is because the mitzvos have been entrusted with us by Hashem and it is up to us to perform them faithfully. The same word is associated with the word תִפְקְדֶנּוּ , which is used in Mizmor 008 (8:5) to mean “having in mind.” These mitzvos need to be on our minds whenever the opportunity arises.
(ה) אַחֲלַי יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ:
(5) I earnestly ask [of You], let my ways be steadfast in the observance of Your decrees.
Aleph 5: The Decrees – When a person does a mitzvah he is initially motivated by the knowledge that he is fulfilling the will of Hashem. But his motivation is greatly enhanced if the content of the mitzvah itself is especially meaningful to him.
However, there are many mitzvos, like the Parah Adumah, where the actual procedure seems to have little or no rationale and may even be counter-intuitive. In such cases the person may find difficulty in overcoming arguments from outside critics or even from within his own questioning nature (his Yetzer Hara). As a result that person should make a special effort to perform those mitzvos correctly and completely. He should also seek Divine help in overcoming the challenges that may come his way. Even if these challenges are relatively weak, they may dilute the intensity of his devotion in performing the mitzvos.
Therefore a person should treat every mitzvah, even its non-rational aspects as an absolute decree, a pure expression of the will of his Creator. Such an avodah should be thought of as a חֹק , an edict engraved in stone and not subject to question, for it is actually a test of his devotion.
(ו) אָז לֹא אֵבוֹשׁ בְּהַבִּיטִי אֶל כָּל מִצְוֹתֶיךָ:
(6) Then I will not be ashamed when I regard all Your mitzvos.
Aleph 6: Shame – Even if a person has the highest personal standards of behavior, he is not likely to meet them if he has no sense of shame. Shame is the emotion that impels him to listen to his conscience. It stops him from sacrificing his principles to gain short-term advantage.
Such an advantage might arise if a person is obstructed by the difficulties inherent in observing the Decrees, the mitzvos for which no rationale is given. As described in the previous pasuk, the dificulties can include arguments from outside critics or even from within his own questioning nature (his Yetzer Hara). Upon encountering these difficulties he can employ his own sense of shame to help him stay on the path he is trying to follow.
(ז) אוֹדְךָ בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב בְּלָמְדִי מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ:
(7) I will give thanks to You with a conscientious heart, when I study Your righteous Mishpatim.
Aleph 7: The Mishpatim – When a person lives under a system of law that seems arbitrary and unfair he does not take his legal obligations at face value. Instead he looks for loopholes and tries to interpret the law to his own advantage. In contrast, if he respects the authenticity and fairmindedness of the law he will have a positive attitude to it. Because he trusts its validity he will be conscientious about complying with every fine point of its enactments.
The mitzvos of the Torah are essentially a collection of laws governing the way Hashem wants us to live our lives. If we trust in their validity and authenticity we will be inclined to observe them conscientiously. However, Hashem has challenged our faithfulness by not revealing the rationale to all the mitzvos. Those aspects of the mitzvos whose rationale corresponds to our inborn sense of fairmindedness are referred as Mishpatim or Ordinances. Those aspects for which no rationale is given are referred as the Chukim or Decrees.
It is our duty to fully and conscientiously observe every mitzvah because it is the will of Hashem, whether or not we have insight into its rationale. David touches on this challenge by acknowledging with gratitude the insight the many Mishpatim have given him into Divine thinking. This insight strengthens his devotion and it is that devotion which he hopes to draw upon when he is challenged by those mitzvos for which the rationale is concealed.
(ח) אֶת חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר אַל תַּעַזְבֵנִי עַד מְאֹד:
(8) I will [do my utmost to] observe Your Decrees. Don’t forsake me [because I look to Your support so that I can observe them] to the highest degree.
Aleph 8: Perseverance – The mizmor began with a commitment to wholeness in serving Hashem. But as David develops the mizmor he introduces an awareness that the inherent limitations of blood and flesh humanity prevent him from achieving perfection in that goal.
And so David shows that his mission is a continued search for spiritual wholeness despite the obstacles. His challenge is is to persevere in that search as he rises ever closer to the ultimate goal which is only achievable in the spirituality of the World to Come. Furthermore, his progress to ever higher degrees of perfection depends upon the direct help of Hashem and so he pleads with Hashem not to forsake him despite his faults.
Learning the Mizmor
ALEPH 1: WHOLENESS
(א) אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי דָרֶךְ
הַהֹלְכִים בְּתוֹרַת ה‘:
Fortunate — אַשְׁרֵי are those people who have chosen to stay on the path of wholeness — תְמִימֵי דָרֶךְ , practicing a consistent devotion to Hashem and continued personal development in all areas of life. It is they who walk with the Torah of Hashem — הַהֹלְכִים בְּתוֹרַת ה‘ .
In contrast with the first pasuk of Tehillim (אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ) , the first pasuk of Mizmor 119 is stated in the plural (אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי דָרֶךְ) to remind us that the wholeness of which it speaks is not just the wholeness of an individual but the unity of an entire nation, leading ultimately to a universal recognition of G-d by all of mankind.
ALEPH 2: THE TESTIMONIES
(ב) אַשְׁרֵי נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו
בְּכָל לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ:
Fortunate — אַשְׁרֵי are they who have committed themselves to serve Hashem and to safeguard His Testimonies — נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו . They do so by faithfully observing the mitzvos and actively involving their imagination in the narratives of the Torah, that is, by telling, listening, and doing. In their eagerness to understand the wishes of their Creator, they seek Him with all their heart — בְּכָל לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ and a readiness to believe in the truth of what they find.
The second pasuk of the Aleph group conveys the critical nature of the Testimonies by again starting with the word אַשְׁרֵי . With this word David affirms that Jews consider themselves fortunate for having been chosen to live a life of special holiness.
Our happiness at being able to live a Torah life is directly related to the עֵדֹת that make it possible. We are privileged to be part of the grand chain that safeguards the עֵדֹת by observing the mitzvos and studying the events of the past as they have been handed down to us.
We are fortunate that our positive attitude towards the entire Torah is built on the trust (bitachon) we feel towards the testimony of our forefathers. And so we study the Torah to understand the will of Hashem and we do so with all our heart that contrasts with the attitude of doubt and skepticism that infects much of the world today.
Our study of the Torah is a constant search for new insights into the ancient words and a new understanding of what those words imply in the lives we lead today.
(1) Important opportunities to seek Hashem are the mitzvos associated with holy days of the year, such as Shabbos and the Yomim Tovim. Shabbos teaches us about Creation and the Yomim Tovim teach us about the circumstances surrounding the formation of our nation and the giving of the Torah. (רשר”ה)
(2) The Testimonies of the Torah demonstrate to us that Hashem governs the world and actively manages every aspect of nature and human history. He is deeply concerned about the doings of His people and shows His concern by reacting to their behavior with a system of rewards and punishments that is specifically designed to promote personal growth and morality. (מלבים)
(3) The Testimonies bear witness to the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people. Each made a commitment to the other. David first introduced them to Tehillim in Mizmor 019 where he emphasized their trustworthiness and reliability: עֵדוּת ה’ נֶאֱמָנָה (19:8). He also pointed out that they are so rich in intellectual depth that they make the simple wise (מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי) . (רד”ק)
ALEPH 3: INJUSTICE
(ג) אַף לֹא פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה
The fortunate people who have been able to stay on the path of virtue have not even commited an injustice — אַף לֹא פָעֲלוּ עַוְלָה , for they have walked in His ways — בִּדְרָכָיו הָלָכוּ and have treated everyone in a fair manner.
The third pasuk of the Aleph group draws attention to the issue of injustice. This matter is placed here in such a prominent position because it puts us on guard to do what is right even when the offense that is tempting us seems subtle.
A person who seeks advantage by treating his fellow man unfairly is stepping beyond the limits of the path of virtue. The injustice that he is doing is referred to as an עַוְלָה , which may be defined as a misuse of power. In Mizmor 092 David speaks of Hashem as setting the model for total rejection of such misuse, וְלֹא עַוְלָתָה בּוֹ , “there is no injustice in Him” (92:16).
The approach used above is based on the commentary of Malbim. This approach is based partially on an interpretation of עַוְלָה as misuse of power (Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch). Other commentators extend its meaning to refer to wider forms of sin. A series of insights illuminating the pasuk based on the extended interpretation are presented below.
(1) Even when people manage to avoid sin, they have not fulfilled their duty in life unless they have done positive mitzvos. (רש”י, מצודות)
(2) When people seek Hashem with all their heart, their worthy way of life will keep them from sin. Hashem wil also reward their righteous behavior by keeping them from inadvertent sin. (רד”ק)
(3) A person who expends effort to avoid sin is given credit for this because it is also considered an act of walking on a path of virtue. (מלבים)
ALEPH 4: THE DOCTRINES
(ד) אַתָּה צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ
Because You, Hashem, have issued Your doctrines — אַתָּה צִוִּיתָה פִקֻּדֶיךָ , it is all the more reason for them to be faithfully observed — לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד by each individual.
In this pasuk David begins addressing Hashem directly (You) for he is emphasizing man’s relationship with Hashem which is defined by the Doctrines. He also emphasizes the importance of their faithful observance. Only Hashem knows what is in a man’s mind. The responsibility to fulfill Hashem’s sacred trust rests with each individual.
(1) The details of the mitzvos of the mind have been primarily conveyed to us by the Neviim (Prophets). (אבן עזרא)
(2) An alternate view of the Doctrines is that they are physical mitzvos that correspond to the Testimonies, which are the true mitzvos of the mind. (מלבים)
(3) Another view is that they are the mitzvos that have been implanted into our conscience so that they existed in conceptual form and were held for safekeeping even before the Torah was given at Sinai. (אבן יחייא)
ALEPH 5: THE DECREES
(ה) אַחֲלַי יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי
I earnestly ask of You — אַחֲלַי , let my ways be steadfast — יִכֹּנוּ דְרָכָי in the observance of Your decrees — לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֶּיךָ: , despite all the obstacles I may encounter through my lack of understanding.
In this pasuk David humbly turns to Hashem to ask for help in firmly grounding his resolve to do the will of Hashem. Such extra strength of character may be needed to face down the challenges that may distract his attention and weaken his resolve to conscientiously observe the non-rational aspects of mitzvos.
(1) In his tefillah, David recognizes that the elements of a mitzvah itself may not always convey the kind of reasoning that his imagination can relate to. In such a case the distractions of daily life can weaken his devotion and so he asks that those distraction be minimized. (רד”ק)
(2) If a person has not developed the strength of character needed to suppress the arguments of his yetzer hara, he will need to put an extra effort in asking for Divine help. Only with this help will he be able to deal with the challenges posed by those aspects of mitzvos that have the form of decrees. (מלבים)
(3) He may even ask Hashem to help him avoid battling his yetzer hara altogether because he is afraid he will lose. (נר לרגלי)
ALEPH 6: SHAME
(ו) אָז לֹא אֵבוֹשׁ
בְּהַבִּיטִי אֶל כָּל מִצְוֹתֶיךָ:
Then — אָז when I receive Your help I will not be ashamed — לֹא אֵבוֹשׁ of my inadequacy, when I regard the totality of all Your mitzvos — בְּהַבִּיטִי אֶל כָּל מִצְוֹתֶיךָ , and make a conscientious effort to fulfill every one.
In the previous pasuk David had asked for help in dealing with the obstacles to observance of the Decrees. He now concludes this thought by explaining how his sense of shame plays a role in helping him overcome such obstacles. His shame in failing to observe a paricular set of mitzvos would have aggravated by the realization that he is failing to achieve the wholeness in mitzvah observance spoken of at the beginning of the Mizmor (pasuk א ).
David expresses this thought from a positive point of view. He says that now, with Hashem’s help, his observance of the totality of mitzvos will be complete and he will therefore escape the sense of shame that he would feel if he had weakened in the face opposition.
(1) David knows that if he violates any mitzvah he will feel shame when he comes across that mitzvah in reviewing the listing of all 613 mitzvos. (רד”ק) (מצודות)
(2) David knows that when he looks at his tzitzis he is reminded of the totality of 613 mitzvos ( תרי”ג ) and if he is not missing any mitzvos, he will not be ashamed. (אלשיך)
(3) David knows that if he is doing his utmost to observe every mitzvah, he needs to feel no shame when unavoidable circumstances prevent him from observing a particular mitzvah. But if he has not done his utmost, he cannot evade a justified feeling of shame because Hashem may very well have brought those circumstances upon him as a sign of His displeasure. (נר לרגלי)
ALEPH 7: THE MISHPATIM
(ז) אוֹדְךָ בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב
בְּלָמְדִי מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ:
I will give thanks to You with a conscientious heart — אוֹדְךָ בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב for helping me overcome the challenges inherent in the Decrees whose rationale is concealed. I am grateful for the insight You grant me when I study Your righteous ordinances — בְּלָמְדִי מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ . It is this understanding that strengthens my love and respect for the entire body of mitzvos so that I can serve You conscientiously.
In this pasuk David focuses on the Mishpatim, those aspects of mitzvos for which a clear rationale may be immediately evident. If it is not evident immediately it becomes apparent after the individual has had a chance to give it some thought and study.
These Mishpatim are described as righteous ordinances (מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ) since they ring true to a person’s basic sense of righteousness or virtue. That sense of righteousness originates with Hashem and was granted to man in the act of creating him. Thus, David describes it as “Your righteousness.”
In acknowledging his gratitude to Hashem, David refers to his attitude as a conscientious heart (יֹשֶׁר לֵבָב) . This means he respects the law and is not motivated to adjust its interpretation to suit his own concerns. He has gained this attituded from his in-depth study of the Mishpatim and he feels that this renewed respect for the will of Hashem can enable him to observe every detail of the Decrees conscientiously.
(1) The process of learning the מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ will teach me how to thank You properly בְּיֹשֶׁר לֵבָב . (מצודות)
(2) The meaning of יֹשֶׁר (straightness) is directly related to בִּינָּה , that is, understanding. Once a person has gained a breadth and depth of understanding through learning the mitzvos he is enabled to fulfill them conscientiously, without deviation. (מלבים)
(3) By learning and appreciating the יֹשֶׁר that is inherent in the Mishpatim, and by thanking You for them without reservation, I will realize and know that the Decrees are also designed with wisdom. (המאירי)
ALEPH 8: PERSEVERANCE
(ח) אֶת חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר
I will do my utmost to observe Your Decrees — אֶת חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר as I continue to delve into their meaning. Don’t forsake me — אַל תַּעַזְבֵנִי because I look to Your support so that I can observe them to the highest degree — עַד מְאֹד .
In this last pasuk of the Aleph segment David turns once more to the Decrees (Chukim) which symbolize the challenges that he faces in his search for a spiritual connection to his Creator. The lack of rationale for the Decrees suggests that he cannot have a perfect understanding of their meaning even though he meticulously performs the physical actions involved in these mitzvos.
And so David begins by reiterating his commitment to observe Hashem’s Decrees. Implied in that observance is a continued search for greater meaning and for greater spirituality. He commits himself to persevere in that search and he pleads with Hashem not to forsake him because David knows that Hashem’s help is needed every step of the way.
With this thought David has completed the Aleph segment of the mizmor. It began (Aleph 1) with praises of the life that is lived in devotion to Hashem. Halfway through the segment (Aleph 4) David was moved to address Hashem directly, singing of his eagerness to observe every aspect of the mitzvos, even those for which no rationale is evident. He then committed himself to perseverence in this goal, and concluded with a plea for Hashem’s help in making progress on the road to spiritual perfection.
(1) The last phrase of the pasuk (עַד מְאֹד) is directly linked to the first phrase (אֶת חֻקֶּיךָ אֶשְׁמֹר) . David signifies that he wants to observe the mitzvos to the highest degree that is possible and he looks to Hashem to help him do that. (אבן עזרא, רד”ק, מצודות)
(2) An alternate interpretation is that by studying the Mishpatim for which a rationale is evident he will be enabled to better observe the Decrees, even without knowing their rationale. He then pleads with Hashem’s help to make this possible. (מלבים)
(3) David pleads with Hashem to help him perfect his soul until he is able to understand the meaning of the Decrees. (המאירי)
(4) David is also pleading with Hashem to save him from his present misfortunes in the merit of his observance of the decrees. (בן רמוך)
(5) Finally, David pleads with Hashem to help him overcome his yetzer hara that tempts him to neglect complete observence of the Decrees. (נר לרגלי)