Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar. (Rosh Chodesh – a monthly mini-holiday in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of each new month.) One of the extra prayers which we say on every Rosh Chodesh is Barchi Nafshi (Psalm 104). In case you’re not familiar with the text (or have only read it by rote in the Hebrew), you can find the English translation here.
It is so easy to read this prayer by rote, but if you have traveled around Israel, it is nearly impossible! There are so many themes contained in it that can be appreciated better by seeing the same sites that the Psalmist was inspired by when he wrote this prayer. Let me point out just a few:
The Wild Donkey
He sends the springs into the streams; they go between the mountains. They water every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The first animal mentioned explicitly is the “wild donkey” or in Hebrew פרא (Pera). Actually its scientific name is the Asian Wild Ass, but modern Bible translations seem to prefer ‘donkey’ for some unknown reason. The wild donkey is native to the deserts of Israel. To see this animal we will have to go all the way to the south of Israel to a place called the Hai Bar Nature Reserve near Yotvata. It is one of two unique nature reserves set up in Israel to breed endangered native species often with the aim of reintroducing them into the wild.
During the time of the Psalmist the wild donkey was a common site in Israel, but during the Crusader and Ottoman periods it was hunted to the brink of extinction. Thanks to the efforts of the Hai Bar they now have several hundred of them and have even recently reintroduced some into the Ramon crater!
Besides Barchi Nafshi, you may remember this animal from Genesis 16 where Ishmael is referred to as “Pera Adam” or “a wild donkey of a man”.
The Hai Bar is a kind of drive through safari. You can take your car in and slowly drive among the different herds of animals. If you haven’t been there, it is definitely worth a visit!
The Lord’s trees are sated, the cedars of Lebanon, which He planted.
Where birds nest; as for the stork-the high junipers are its home.
This translation of Psalms speaks of the “high junipers”. It is close, but not exactly. The specific tree that is mentioned in the Hebrew is the “Brosh” or in English, the Mediterranean Cypress. This is a tree that you simply can’t miss in Israel! It is everywhere. It is a tall, thin, evergreen tree. It was used in ancient times to make roof beams for houses.
I Kings 6 tells how King Solomon covered the floors of the Temple with beams made from this same cypress tree!
The Stork is a migratory bird which travels from Europe to Africa and back every year. Since Israel is the land bridge between those two continents, almost all of the storks in the world spend some time in Israel twice every year!
In Autumn you will be sure to see storks at the Hula Lake reserve or at any fish pond in the Beit Shean valley. In the spring you are more likely to see them along the coast.
The Psalmist describes how the stork makes its nest in the high cypress trees. Today they do as well, but they are just as likely to make their nest atop a telephone pole or on top of a high building.
You may also recognize the stork from the list of non-kosher birds in the Torah.
The lofty mountains for the ibexes; the rocks a shelter for the hyraxes
I can’t think of a better place to go to see the ibex than Ein Gedi. The place is actually named after them. In Hebrew ‘Gedi’ means ‘kid’. ‘Ein Gedi’ means ‘spring of the kids’. It isn’t referring to all the school kids who come to play in the waterfalls, it is referring to the ibex kids!
You can see hundreds of ibexes all year at Ein Gedi. Like the wild donkey, they to used to be on the verge of extinction due to hunting. Strict laws in Israel protecting them have allowed the population to explode to the point that they have to be culled to keep them from destroying all the vegetation.
The Hyrax (Shafan in Hebrew) can also be seen in abundance at Ein Gedi. They are actually found in many parts of Israel, but at Ein Gedi you are sure to see them all year round!
The Hyrax is a unique animal. It is a mammal but its temperature regulation system is not as developed as most mammals. For this reason, you will see them sunning themselves on the rocks in the morning, and hiding in the shade when its very hot out. This is what the Psalmist must have referred to when he said, “The rocks a shelter for the Hyraxes”.
They are very social and expressive animals. Often on hikes I have looked up to see a family of them looking down at me from the rocks above. Some of their facial expressions can be very human-like.
…and so much more
I have only touched on a few parts of the Barchi Nafshi prayer which can be better appreciated by touring Israel. I haven’t touched on springs, oceans, wine, oil, or lions and I know better than to start with the leviathan or the wicked perishing from the earth.
According to the Chabad Chassidic tradition, Rosh Chodesh is a mini Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana, G-d draws down the life force for the entire year in potential. On each Rosh Chodesh, we draw out a portion of that general life force for the coming month. On Rosh Hashana we spend a lot of time praising G-d as the “Holy King”. This is in order to arouse His desire to renew his kingship over us and thereby grant us the life force the world needs for the coming year.
Perhaps this is the reason we say Barchi Nafshi on Rosh Chodesh. We remind ourselves of the great and beautiful world which G-d has created. When we get excited about it, it causes G-d to reciprocate and grant us what we need for the coming month.
So don’t say it by rote! Come with me on a tour of this beautiful Land of Israel and you will gain a new appreciation of this prayer and so much more from our Torah!