psalms

Psalm 84

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm for the children of Korach

How wonderful are your dwelling-places, G?d of Heavens!

My soul yearns and even suffers for the courtyards of G?d. My heart and my flesh shout for joy to the god of life.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she can lie down her brood at your altars, G?d of Heavens, my Sovereign, my god.

Happy are those who dwell in Your house, so are those who praise You. Selah.

Happy is the one whose strength is in You, whose heart is on the highways

They pass over the Valley of Baca, seeing springs as the early rain fills the rock-pools.

They go from strength to strength; the god of gods appear to them in Zion

G?d, the god of Heavens, hear my prayer. Give ear, god of Jacob. Selah.

Look at our shield, G?d, and see the face of your anointed.

For it is better to have a day in your courtyard than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of G?d than live in the tents of the wicked

For G?d is sun and shield, G?d gives grace and glory. G?d does not withhold goodness from those who walk with integrity.

G?d of Heavens, happy is the one who trusts in You!

valley-baca-springs0-300x198

I retranslated Psalm 84 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This text drew out an interesting tension between universalism and particularism/ Diasporism and nationalism. Some students felt this text anticipated Diaspora ideas of Judaism – the theological language shifts G!d’s dwelling-place from inside the Temple building to the natural world. Mountains become divine courtyards and birds’ nests become altars. Yet, other students pointed out that the Baca Valley is a very specific place in modern Lebanon, and that these psalms were written to celebrate a specific land. This prompted the students to write their own psalms about the lands in which they lived.

psalms

Psalm 65

For the leader, a psalm of David, sing:

The psalms for God in Zion are for You, and for You are vows sent

Hear this prayer; your servant and all flesh come

When wrongdoing overwhelms me, you forgive our mistakes

Happy is the one you choose, the one you draw near to the courtyard where you dwell, satisfy us with goodness in your house, in your Holy Temple

Answer us with the wonders of justice, our liberating God; all the ends of the earth and the distant seas have faith

The mountains are fixed by G?d’s power, strengthened by might

Calming raging seas, raging waves, and raging peoples

The people who live on the margins are awed by your signs; because of You, dawn and dusk shout out for joy.

You look after the land and water it; the river of G?d, full of water, makes it grow abundantly; you provide the grain that you have grown

You quench the riverbanks, lay down furrows; You soften it with showers and bless it with springing plants

You enclose the year with your goodness, and your tracks drip with abundance

They drop on the plains of the wilderness, and little hills rejoice all over

The meadows are clothed with sheep, and the valleys are covered in grain. They cry out for joy. Even they sing.

 

mountains

I retranslated Psalm 65 for the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This psalm, in particular, generated fertile discussion about labour relations in First Temple Judaism. Many students felt that this psalm reflected emerging class dynamics between agrarian workers, nomadic shepherds and Temple elites. As a result, one proposed that the word ‘margins’ might better be translated as ‘the edges of farmland’, or ‘the edges of civilisation’. Although less poetic, it feels truer to the meaning in this Marxist interpretation of the text.

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Psalm 8

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm of David

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth, you have covered the sky with your splendour

From the mouths of infants and babies, you have established strength for the sake of enemies, to end animosity and revenge.

When I look upon the sky, the works of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place,

What is humanity that you remember us, we children of Adam that you think of us,

That you made us a fraction of gods, adorned us with glory and majesty?

You have made us rule over the works of your hands and laid the world at our feet:

Sheep and oxen, all of them, and even wild beasts

Birds in the sky and fish in the water, everything across the seas

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth!

sheep grazing

I retranslated Psalm 8 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat.

psalms

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