Exploring Lecha Dodi, Part 5: Verse #3 – Mikdash Melech

Other entries in this series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 6

Continuing with our analysis of Lecha Dodi, we move on now to the third verse of the song, Mikdash Melech:

מקדש מלך, עיר מלוכה,
קומי! צאי מתוך ההפכה.
רב לך שבת בעמק הבכא,
והוא יחמול עליך חמלה.

Unique place of the King – City of kingship –
Arise! Go forth from amidst the overturning.
You flatter yourself unduly by sitting in a valley of thorns;
And he will console upon You consolations.

This first of seven verses discussing the maligned Yerushalayim begins with a line inspired by Amot (7:13):

וּבֵית אֵל לֹא תוֹסִיף עוֹד לְהִנָּבֵא, כִּי מִקְדַּשׁ מֶלֶךְ הוּא, וּבֵית מַמְלָכָה הוּא.

Still, we need to understand the relationship between the special city and the special day. The commentary Iyun Tefillah helps us out by recalling the famous Gemara (Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews would observe two Shabbatot properly, we would immediately be redeemed. ועתה, continues the Iyun Tefillah, כשישראל מקבלין את השבת לשמרה כהלכתה, ינחם את ירושלים ויתן תקוה בלבה שקרובה גאולתה לבוא. Yerushalayim, as it were, finds nothing more comforting than seeing Jews observe Shabbat, because it means that its own period of degradation may be drawing to a close. So once again, we link in to a larger truth expressed by Shabbat than the myopic and limited vantage point we tend to have when we experience it every week. Our observance is goal-oriented and part of a larger project by which to link in to a chance to save humanity.

As a commenter to this blog noticed, the phrase מתוך ההפכה is clearly borrowed from the story of Lot, where we find that Sedom, too, was turned into a הַפֵכָה:

בראשית יט:כט
וַיְהִי בְּשַׁחֵת אֱלֹהִים אֶת עָרֵי הַכִּכָּר וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת לוֹט מִתּוֹךְ הַהֲפֵכָה בַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר יָשַׁב בָּהֵן לוֹט.

Why is Sedom invoked as a metaphor for Yerushalayim? Is there more to the comparison than the fact that they were each destroyed? In order to answer this, we must first consider the word הַפֵכָה, overturning or reversal, a word so intrinsically associated with Sedom that the term and city are linked in five different places in Tanach outside of Bereishit (Devarim 29:22, Yeshayahu 13:19, Yirmiyahu 49:18 and 50:40, and Amos 4:11), in each of which Yerushalayim is threatened with a fate similar to that of Sedom. The term מהפכה is also used to refer to a prison (see Yirmiyahu 29:26 with commentaries, and Divrei Hayamim II 16:10), where a person’s fortunes are changed or overturned.

When Sedom was destroyed, it represented more than a random destruction, a חורבן; it represented a moratorium on an entire way of life – a mental or psychological destruction as severe as the more obvious physical one. Sedom was more than a city – it represented an ideology, a human experiment, a distinctly selfish approach to life antithetical to G-d’s plan for how mankind was meant to interact on earth (see Mishna Avot 5:10). The destruction of Sedom was monumental because more than the end of a city, it was an indictment – a מהפכה, overturning – of an entire way of life that was embodied by that place. The destruction of Yerushalayim and Sedom are linked throughout Tanach because the destruction of Yerushalayim, like that of Sedom, represented more than the end of a city, but with that city the end of a distinct ideology and way of life. When we invite Yerushalayim to “arise from amidst the הַפֵכָה,” we are asking Yerushalayim to recalibrate itself to become the city of meaning that it once was – the city, like Sedom, that contained a unique ideology and way of life which no other city can boast. Sedom’s downfall was the end not only of a city, but also of an experiment, an epoch. When the stones of Yerushalayim fell, so did an ideology and, with it, our opportunity to come very close to Hashem on earth.

With that, we have another way to answer our first question above. We discuss Yerushalayim at the onset of Shabbat because today it is Shabbat, our day of feeling close to Hashem, that is as close as we can come to recapturing the ideology that was lost when the stones of Yerushalayim fell. At the same time, we ask Yerushalayim to צאי מתוך ההפכה, to find its way back to the ideology it once had so that Shabbat, a marker in time, can share the closeness to Hashem that it allows with Yerushalayim, a marker in place currently not allowing that same closeness. Shabbat is a role model, if you will, for the ideology that Yerushalayim must recapture in order to win the game.

But Yerushalayim must be a willing partner in that reversal if it is to occur. The phrase רב לך brings to mind a similar phrase, רב לכם, used twice at the beginning of Parshat Korach, first by Korach (Bamidbar 16:3) to criticize Moshe and Aharon’s allegedly pretentious leadership, then thrown back at Korach by Moshe (16:7) to highlight Korach’s own arrogance in wanting more than his own fair share of power. The same use of this phrase can be found in Melachim I 12:28 and Yechezkel 45:9. In each of these four examples, the speaker implies sarcastically that what is ostensibly a positive quality – in Korach’s case, seeking a position of leadership; in Melachim, running to Yerushalayim while one’s idols wait back home – is actually a negative trait if viewed in its full context. So we exhort Yerushalayim that while its period of sitting in the עמק הבכא (see next paragraph) seems like a pious act, it is actually one of arrogance when considered in light of the need of the Jews for Yerushalayim to קומי צאי. So the reference here may be less like a parent gently prodding his child climbing his first flight of stairs (a gentle !קומי! צאי), and more like a teacher whose student has yet to carry out his teacher’s request that he leave the room (an ominously threatening …קומי…צאי). Or maybe the reference is somewhere in between those two mediums, like a parent prodding his child out the door lest he be late to school. Either way, there is an anxiousness that Yerushalayim show some spirit in fulfilling its own half of the bargain before the process can unfold.

The standard Siddurim translate עמק הבכא as valley of tears or valley of weeping, but this translation doesn’t take into account that the spelling here is בכא rather than בכה. Several commentaries (Metzudat Dovid, Ibn Ezra, and Malbim) to Tehillim 84:7, where this phrase is found, assume that the word בכא means “thorns.” (Targum, Rashi, and Radak assume it means weeping.) The use of בכאים as thorns can also be found in Shmuel II 5:23 and 5:24, and Divrei Hayamim I 14:14 and 14:15. “Thorns,” more than “tears” or “weeping,” would support our hypothesis that Yerushalayim is being overly pious and ascetic (רב לך) by sitting out the game while the Jews wait anxiously for her return to glory. Rashi to Tehillim similarly assumes that this is a very unflattering reference, to “עומקה של גיהינום” where sinners sit in tears. Whether the עמק הבכא is a valley of tears or thorns, however, the point still stands that we expect Yerushalayim to more actively participate in its own redemption than it is doing by sitting on the sidelines wallowing in self-pity. Think of Hashem’s exhortation to Moshe that he stop Davening and start crossing the Yam Suf as a similar example of misplaced piety. Thus, Yerushalayim flatters itself unduly (רב לך) by continuing to wallow in its own pain (עמק הכבא) when it can already begin to recover (קומי צאי) and reclaim its long-lost dignity (מתוך ההפכה).

Etz Yosef assumes that “והוא” refers to Hashem, but this is a point of some difficulty because Hashem has not been mentioned in this verse. Perhaps it refers to Yerushalayim, and the object of עליך is the Jewish People or, as might be guessed with the singular conjugation, Hashem. Yerushalayim will provide the kind of consolation (יחמול חמלה) to You (the Jews or Hashem) which makes the object of that consolation (either us or Hashem) feel better. Either way, the doubling of חמל is interesting – והוא ירחם or והוא ינחם would have preserved the all-important rhyming pattern at the end of the verse while allowing for some variety along the way. The doubling does, however, conjure up נחמו נחמו עמי (which would support the Etz Yosef’s assumption that the subject, rather than its antecedent, is Yerushalayim). This would not be a coincidental reference, either; we will continue to explore the possibility that these final seven verses of Lecha Dodi actually run parallel to the שבעה דנחמתא, the Seven Haftarot of Consolation which we recite in the weeks following Tish’ah B’Av. In a famous piece, Rav Soloveitchik describes these seven Haftarot as depicting seven stages of consolation – a seven-week journey from נחמו נחמו to שוש תשיש – and these might be hidden in the verses of Lecha Dodi in which we repeatedly comfort Yerushalayim. Haftarah #1, נחמו נחמו, would then parallel this verse of Lecha Dodi, in which we express our hope that, as it is rebuilt, Yerushalayim will feel the double measure of comfort – יחמול חמלה – that it needs to feel before we can begin Shabbat in peace. Just as we cannot begin Shabbat until we have welcomed mourners into Shul with the hope that they feel comfort, we need to ensure that Yerushalayim feels that sense of comfort, perhaps doubly so, before we can begin Shabbat – והוא יחמול עליך חמלה.

OK – we’ll continue with the next stage of comfort, התנערי מעפר, next week.

This entry was posted in Lecha Dodi, Tefillah. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Exploring Lecha Dodi, Part 5: Verse #3 – Mikdash Melech

  1. David B says:

    Impressive erudition. Is there a commentary to the rest of the poem?

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