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If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem, Let My Right Hand Be Forgotten – What Does This Mean?

Today is the fast of the 9th of Av, or Tisha b’Av, during which we read the Psalm whose famous verse is recited at all Jewish weddings, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.

What does that mean, “let my right hand be forgotten”?

Metzudat David’s commentary to Tehillim (Psalms) explains the verse as referring to the strength of one’s right hand … which is OK as an explanation, but it’s short on detail. Why should my right hand forget its strength for forgetting Jerusalem? Why not some other cruel and unusual punishment, like a prohibition on eating chocolate for the rest of my life?

Furthermore, this commentary adds in the words “its strength” into the verse, in square brackets – [its strength]. This is fine, but it’s interpretation (drash) instead of just reading the verse as per its simple meaning/reading (pshat).

What’s the link between forgetting Jerusalem and forgetting one’s right hand?

In order for us to understand the link, we need to first explain the metaphor of a person’s right hand. (Note: It’s not the metaphor of G’s right hand, since grammatically the verse refers to the speaker of the Psalm – the same person who risks forgetting Jerusalem.)

Q: Who does one lean on in one’s old age?
A: One’s children. In this regard, they support us – they are our right hand.

Now, what does it mean to forget Jerusalem?

We learn the answer from Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, zats’al (see also Rav Aviner’s description and the ceremonies marking his passing and philosophy, and this).

Rav Tzvi Yehuda taught:

“It is impossible to live on foreign soil. One must understand that every aspect of Diaspora existence is lethal to us. Often the love of Zion is lost because of the stultifying influences of living in a foreign land. We forget Jerusalem. ‘If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten.'”*

Forgetting Jerusalem means accepting life on foreign soil. It means choosing to remain in Galut when G’ has invited us back home, back to Israel.

Living among the non-Jews means that assimilation and intermarriage will eventually cause my right hand’s strength to be forgotten. It will cause my children to be forgotten – or perhaps “deliberately ignored” is a better expression.

Is this necessarily so? Haven’t Jews lived through thousands of years of exile, suggesting that we can survive life amidst the nations?

Let’s start with the literal/theological aspect of the question, and then move on to the historical aspect.

The Hebrew of the verse is difficult to translate, because it uses the word “tishkach,” which is the active future tense with what seems to be either an unknown/incompatible subject, “you” (second person singular, masculine), or the third person feminine “she”. Both pronouns take a “T” prefix in the active future tense.

In other words, the translation “let my right hand be forgotten,” is technically inaccurate – if the verb were in the passive, it should say “tishAkach” with the shin vowelized with a “ah” sound. The literal/more accurate translation of the verse reads, “you will forget my right hand.”

The problem is … who will forget my right hand?

It can’t be Jerusalem – because Jerusalem is referred to in the feminine second person, whereas “you will forget” is the masculine second person. It can’t be me, since I’m obviously not the second person.

That’s why Metzudat David chose instead to interpolate the words “its strength” after “my right hand.” By adding these words, he can say that the verse is saying “she will forget,” rather than “you will forget.” Hence he reads the verse, “My right hand will forget its strength.”

So if we want to read the verse without adding in words, we need to read the verse as “you will forget,” not “she will forget.”

This brings us back to our question: Who will forget my right hand?? Who is this mysterious “you”?

I think the answer is that the general “you” without further specification refers to G’. It’s like saying “The King” – there’s only One King that can be referred to in that way without additional specification. Such an interpretation isn’t just a product of my imagination – our sages often interpret the prefix “heyh hayedua” (ה) in this way.

In sum, the verse is saying “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, You [G’] will forget my right hand.” If I do not seek thee, O Jerusalem, if I content myself with living in exile – G’ forget my children. I.e. G’s protection and care over my children…

But isn’t it true G’s covenant with the Children of Israel is eternal? Yes, it is … with the Children of Israel.

Intermarriage where the wife is non-Jewish means the kids aren’t Jewish, and thus aren’t the Children of Israel. And intermarriage is a problem caused in 99% of cases by living surrounded by non-Jews, in exile, with all the impact that has. (To be clear: I see intermarriage as a problem – not Jews marrying converts-to-Judaism.)

(As an aside: The weakness of this interpretation is that it creates a sudden, awkward jump in addressing two different entities as “you.” First Jerusalem is addressed as “you,” then G’ is addressed as you.

(I think this criticism can be answered by analogy to three members of a soccer team. David’s addressing Jon and Levy, and he’s first facing Jon, then turns to face Levy mid-sentence. “If you run down the left hand side, Jon, you [Levy] will pass him the ball.” )

A brief foray into the historical answer why we can’t live among the nations

Besides for the textual answer above, there’s also a historical fallacy in the question. It assumes that because there are Jews around today, and that we’ve been in exile for 2000+ years, that living among the nations and the associated assimilation isn’t a threat.

If you read historians’ books on the 10 lost tribes, you can discern the inexorably rising toll of assimilation. See e.g. Simcha Jacobovici, Benjamin of Tudela etc.

There were Jews across Asia, from its central republics (i.e. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan etc) to India, Afghanistan, Korea and perhaps even Japan. For example, Japan’s shinto priests were a white shawl with fringes at each of the four corners (like a Jewish Talit), and in Afghanistan some of the Pashtu have amulets inscribed with the words Shema Israel. Yet virtually none of these people identify as Jews today – some recognize that their ancestors were Jews, but today they see themselves as Muslims or other religions.

Granted, some of that is due to forced conversions – but lots of it is equally due to plain old assimilation. Benjamin of Tudela describes the Jews of central Asia as being allies of various kings and not as being specifically oppressed.

In either case – be it by violent influence or non-violent influence – the effect of living outside of Israel is that the Jewish people loses members.

This kind of claim reminds me of the absurd Dark Knight in Monty Python’s Quest For The Holy Grail. He duels King Arthur, loses an arm and says, “it’s only a flesh wound.” (You can see the rather funny video on Youtube (with music – wait til after Tisha b’Av) )

Losing limbs is not an acceptable way of living.

To conclude: Aliyah is an imperative upon every Jew

Periodically, we get reminders from non-Jews that we don’t belong outside of Israel. And they’re right – Jews, go home!

Before I made aliyah, I lived in Montreal’s Cote-St-Luc neighbourhood, which has the greatest concentration of Jews in Canada. About 60% of the neighbourhood is Jewish. And some stupid punks drew swastikas in some areas around the neighbourhood, notably on Cavendish (near Mt Sinai hospital) and Westminster.

Of course, there might be some request to the police to investigate, and to the municipality to clean it up. But there’s no real way to answer to the message that you aren’t part of this country, of this people, regardless of equal rights etc.

Why is there no answer to the message?

Simply because belonging is not derived from rights, its derived from identity. And the only place Jewish identity can be lived to the fullest, is in Israel. Where the 9th of Av is a legal holiday … as opposed to, say, Christmas.

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, You will forget my right hand.” It sounds harsh … but we can draw comfort in the fact that the opposite is also true. The Psalmist sang (page in Hebrew), “You [G’] will rise, comfort Zion – when it will be the time to favour her, when the time has come.” And why will G’ do that? When will he do that? King David continues his prophecy, “When your servants will desire her stones, and her dust they will favour.”

“If I forget thee O Jerusalem, You will forget my right hand” … a worthwhile expression for repetition at Jewish marriages !

*Quoted from the book Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehuda, translated in English under the title Torat Eretz Yisrael by Rav David Samson.

Posted in Judaism.

4 Responses

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  1. Aaron says

    Very inspiring,its an interesting interpretation that i haven’t heard before and is definitely some food for thought (no pun intended) thanks for sharing Gabe.

    • GabrielG says

      Thanks for the comment Aaron!

  2. nadia goldenberg says

    Bravo mon cheri,superbe logique,sauf que je ne me sens pas capable de laisser les trois quarts de ma progeniture en Amerique du nord pour monter a Jerusalem……..pour le moment
    love you both

    • GabrielG says

      Tu prends pour acquis qu’ils ne vous suivront pas, a toi et a papa…. hors, comme ils sont importants pour vous, vous etes importante pour eux. Je pense sincerement que Maya et Dahlia tenteraient leur aliyah si vous venez, et qu’Ariel penserait a venir a son tour aussi si vous et Dahlia et Maya veniez.

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