The World of our Worship and the World in which We Live

Liturgical change is part of Jewish life. Our prayer service, as we know it, has evolved over time to reflect changes in place, language and culture. Liturgy has been affected by the enlightenment as well as other philosophical, social and political movements. There is a strong tradition of leaving the Hebrew intact while creating a more socially acceptable and contemporary translation in the vernacular. One constant approach to reconciling the conflict between the literal meaning of ancient liturgy and the sensibilities of modernity is to read the 'offending passage' either historically or symbolically.

Perhaps one of the most controversial lines and that has been retained in Jewish liturgical life is the line in the Birkat Hamazon drawn from the psalms:

"I have been young and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous forsaken and their offspring begging for bread" (Psalm 37:25).

This line presents a beautiful idea of divine justice from a biblical perspective. However, in a post-Holocaust world, in a world of televised famine, many are struck by the cruelty and hypocrisy of that scripture. It suggests that there was not one righteous person among all the millions who beg for bread and whose children have died of malnourishment. If there were righteous people among the sinners of Sodom, then surely there are righteous people amongst the innocent who suffer and whose children go hungry!

The interpretation of this line is pivotal to a worldview that obligates us to help those in need, and provide bread for hungry children before they have to ask. Centralizing tzedakah in their commentary, scholars through the generations have explained away the contradiction in this verse.

Early 20th century Conservative Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz reads the verse in its context and as literally as possible. He suggests that social conditions in the times of the psalmist when the verse was written were so positive and true to the laws of the Torah that all in need had full access to food, shelter and clothing. This assumes that the system of leaving the corners of the fields (pe'ah) and commandment to leave gleanings in the field were strictly kept and that the stranger, widow and orphan were offered due care and protection. This sacred and idealistic view of biblical times is both ahistoric and inspiring. However, this straight reading of such a troubling verse does not satisfy more liberal thinkers.

Chatam Sofer, one of the most renown early 19th century Orthodox scholars and rabbis also addresses the text with a desire to maintain its essential meaning. In his commentary on Parashat Eikev, (Deuteronomy 8:10) from which the proof-text for the Birkat Hamozon is derived, Chatam Sofer changes the idea of divine justice to a perspective on human agency, focusing on the phrase 'I have never seen'. His commentary clarifies: "...I never saw a righteous person forsaken, because as soon as I would become aware of him, he was no longer forsaken, since I opened my hand to him and I supported him from my own goodness and possessions..." This interpretation is adapted in the Conservative movement's Siddur Sim Shalom, which reads, "I have been young and now I am old, but never have I looked on at one righteous and forsaken, and allowed his children to go begging for bread" Both of these text express a clear view of human agency and the role of the individual in creating tzedek on a personal scale.

Yet another reading posits a prophetic approach to the statement. Instead of interpreting the scripture as a description of a world that once was, or a reality that is in the hands of each individual, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky looks forward. He offers the idea that like many other parts of our sacred text, this verse represents an ideal future. He explains, "Whether it is the perspective of the young or the old, it is not a description of the reality that we know. Rather, it is a vision of what can be." Unlike many passages with internal contradictions, neither liturgical change nor retranslation can address the issue that arises: the righteous are forsaken, and their children not only beg for food, but die of malnourishment. It is for this reason, that Isaac Klein explains, "Since this is an ideal and a hope rather than a fact, it is better said in a hushed voice." In a whisper, we remember our own failure to make this ideal a reality and are inspired to try.

This single line has been addressed by many theologians, social scientist and rabbis.
If this topic is of particular interest, a useful resource is Saul Kaiserman's discussion in Teaching Birkat Ha-Mazon: The Grace After Meals. LINK:

Regardless of the reading that resonates most, each reminds us individually and as a people of our responsibility to the other. It is not a divine force alone that can prevent children of the righteous, or for that matter, any children from going hungry. Every time we eat a meal, our liturgy offers us the opportunity to be reminded of our sacred obligation. Now that we eat, are satisfied and bless, we must assure that all people have the opportunity to experience satisfaction enough to speak words of praise.

(Anna Levin Rosen, HUC-JIR: Cincinnati)