Finding ourselves in the Psalms

When we were captives in Babylon, we sat down by its river and cried. We hung up our instruments. Our oppressors asked us to sing. And we refused. How could we sing a song the Aleph’s song in a strange land?[1]

We had forgotten too much. We had forgotten that all our psalms were written in strange lands about the same land. The oldest psalms are etched in hieroglyphs in Egypt.[2] There are records of our psalms dating back thousands of years to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Canaan and Sudan.

When we came into Canaan as refugees, we wrote new songs. In the wilderness of Judah, we found our voices.[3] Even in Babylon, we wrote new songs.[4]

King David compiled them. Although he had long died and was separated from some psalms by thousands of years, he drew them together. David resided in five different realities. He wrote his first psalm in the womb. He came into the world and gazed up at the infinite majesty of the stars and he wrote a new psalm. David sang whenever he saw the wonder of creation. He used to sing when he suckled on his mother’s breasts. David saw a future without evil and he found the words to say “hallelujah.” And in his tomb, David kept writing.[5]

So much has happened since those days. There are things we have lost. We have lost the pronunciation of that breathy 4-letter word they used to describe G?d.[6] Nobody knows what the instruments were that David played. The gittith – what is it? We don’t know.[7] Some words don’t make sense to us any more. Selah. Was it a drum beat? Was it a musical interlude? Was it an interjection? Was it a word we can no longer translate?[8] Perhaps we can no longer translate any of those words. Nobody can hear biblical Hebrew like it’s a mother tongue any more. And though we can sing every bit of the Torah and haftarah, the tunes to psalms are lost to us. Nobody knows what those symbols dancing round letters in tehillim mean any more.

But, oh, the things we have kept! Three thousand years have passed and we still have our texts. Everything that inspired David can inspire us too. We still have dark skies and rolling fields. We still have the miracle of life. We still have faith in justice. We have our voices and we can sing. We have our G?d. We can write.

We will write our own psalms. We will bring our own words and keep up that old tradition of using poetry to describe our relationship with creation, with Diaspora, and with G?d – whoever that is. We will sing about longing and belonging.

When we were in Babylon, we rejoiced by its rivers and laughed. We built new instruments. We were asked to sing a song of the land from where we’d came. We sang those songs and we made new ones too. We birthed a whole new culture all over again. Yes, we can sing a song in a strange land.

Tuscany misty panorama at sunset, rolling hills, fields, meadow.

I delivered this address at the opening of a retreat called ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’, organised by the Movement for Reform Judaism to educate young adults. Over the weekend, I used the Psalms as a tool for teaching about God, Diaspora and nature. In hindsight, I think I may have drawn too much focus to loss and not enough to all the new things that are gained by Jews in Diaspora.

[1] Psalm 137

[2] https://projectaugustine.com/biblical-studies/ancient-near-east-studies/parallelism-between-the-hymn-to-aten-and-psalm-104/

[3] Psalm 63

[4] Psalm 44, Psalm 74, Psalm 79, Psalm 80, Psalm 85, Psalm 89, Psalm 102, Psalm 106, Psalm 123, Psalm 137

[5] BT Berakhot 10a

[6] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-tetragrammaton/

[7] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6693-gittith

[8] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13398-selah

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