The ninth step upward is a step of Blessing – from Home to Jerusalem
The “Psalms of Ascent” – Shirei la’Ma’alot, are the songs written, or chosen, by King David to be sung by the Levitical musician-priests as they ascended the fifteen steps of the staircase from the large, communal gathering place of the Temple Court and drew closer to the Holy Place and the intimate Holy of Holies. The songs, also, could well have been sung by the thousands of pilgrims who regularly made their way up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festivals. The psalms include a verse of prayer for the winter rains of the season that raise up the underground water supply, so vital to Israel’s well-being.
On a personal level, they serve to reinforce the assurance that no matter the depths of despair we may experience due to the trials of life, when we cry to Him our faithful God will always raise us up and strengthen us in His unfailing love and compassion.
Psalm 128 begins where Psalm 127 ended, with the concept of אשר – osher – contentment, fullness, happiness. Psalm 127 closed with Ashrei ha’gever, ‘happy is the man’ and 128 begins, Ashrei kol yireh HaShem. ‘Happy are all those who fear the Lord.’ The two songs share the emphases of household, city, labor, children, and the promise of reward. A difference in 128 is the statement that fear, or awe and reverence, of God and “walking in His ways” are the keys to the greater happiness. The personal and family blessing is extended to the flourishing of the whole nation and, at its heart, the beautiful city of God – Jerusalem.
The growth and spiritual progression – from the individual, to the household, and to the nation – is reflected in the physical life cycle from the union of husband and wife, to the children and grandchildren. All culminates in Shalom – wholeness, peace and joy – upon all Israel.
Grapevines and Olives
In this idyllic state of being and blessing, the husband is assured that he will have labor and the ability to provide for all his family needs. The comparisons of the wife to a grapevine and the children to olive saplings are rich and interesting similes. The plants are two of the seven major species of Israel found in Deuteronomy 8:8. In fact, the psalm is a precis of this eighth chapter. Together with the other five, grapevines and olives are central to biblical as well as modern agriculture in Israel. Apart from providing fruit for consumption, the vine produced the wine for the Kiddush, the sanctification and setting apart of Shabbat and the Festivals, and the oil from the olive supplied the fuel for the lighting of the Menorah in the Temple and candles or lamps for the Sabbaths.
As the home is a small sanctuary and the table represents the altar, the vine and olive saplings are beautiful images of a wife being “deep within your house,” bearing the holiness – kedusha – at the heart of the home, and the children bringing light and blessing. This does not mean that a wife must be confined to her home, as some have interpreted, for a grapevine though firmly rooted in place can send forth branches that reach out and provide the blessing of sustenance and shade to those who have need. Children, too, need to be nurtured in the home and also educated in preparation to go forth confidently and productively into the wider world. Interestingly, both plants can be cultivated indoors and then transplanted outside, which underscores the progression from home to wider community and from nation to all the world. Thus we see the mother image meld into Zion and Jerusalem and the children into bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel. An echo is found in Isaiah 66:13, “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
If children are the saplings, the strong olive tree from which they spring is the father. In verse 4, “Behold for thus shall the man who fears the Lord be blessed,” the use of the word הינה – hineh – see – behold! – indicates a form of Divine intervention. It is an assurance to the gever, man, whose responsibility it is to work, and to provide and care for his wife and children (and, on the wider scale, for the men of the community and nation to extend protection and care for the more vulnerable women and children), that when he lives in fear of God and chooses to emulate Him by “walking in His ways” then His blessings will abound to all. Then he will see Shalom in his home, and the flourishing of Jerusalem filled with ongoing generations and all will enjoy שלום על ישראל – Shalom al Yisrael – Peace upon Israel!
May it be so, in our generation and lifetime. Amen!
~ Keren Hannah