psalms by artistMoshe Tzvi HaLevi Berger swirl across the walls of Jerusalem’s Museum of Psalms. PICASA/PRISCA.CHENG
Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Speaking Our Pain: Anguish, Wonder, and Comfort in the Psalms
by Pamela Greenberg
The psalms, that body of biblical literature so beautiful and passionate, so full of longing, are often rejected by those committed to progressive politics. There are good reasons people might object to aspects of the psalms (and I address a few of these concerns in online essays at www.tikkun.org). Here, though, I would like to encourage those of us interested in changing the world and transforming ourselves to turn to them again and take another look. As someone who has spent a good amount of time over the last ten years wrestling with the psalms and translating them, I will offer some thoughts about how we can use this ancient body of literature to strengthen us in our spiritual and moral lives, in our pursuit of inner transformation and outward justice.
The first and most obvious thing about the psalms is that they awaken us to the possibility of speaking honestly about our pain. So much of life and so many of our distortions rise up when we react to our emotional lives rather than expressing our sorrows and hurts in a transformative way. And in the psalms, the expression of pain is different from, say, most psychotherapy (which certainly has a useful place). The psalms are about "getting things out," but doing so in the faith that we will be somehow comforted and upheld by a force of transcendence. The faith of the psalms is not a simple one. It is, for the most part, a willed faith, even in the context of God's perceived absence. Over and over, the psalmist interrupts a catalogue of anguish and grievance to interject a statement of affirmation and hope. Here is an example from Psalm 73:
As for me, my legs almost stumbled beneath.
Only peace for the wrongful did I see ...
Pride is the adornment around their neck.
Their clothing in a shawl of violence ...
If I were to tell what I have suffered,
behold! I would be a traitor to your children's generation.
And when I pondered this,
all life seemed trouble and turmoil in my eyes—
until I entered your holy sanctuaries,
and understood that even they come to an end ...
Rock of my Faith and my Portion:
your blessing of life continues forever.
One thing progressives can learn from is precisely this hope rooted in faith. It is the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. when he says, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is the faith that allows us to listen to another whose views we may find contrary or even insulting to ideals of justice, and say, "I hear your fear and anguish, but here is another way."
The psalms are often outraged by the lack of justice in the world and are constantly calling upon God to account for it. They express our frustration at the world's mysterious and stubborn refusal to measure up to what seem like such obvious and clear ideals. But that frustration is also accompanied often by a belief in God, which colors the anger and gives it contours of trust and patience. Here is an example from Psalm 37:
Calm your anger, abandon rage.
Don't grow heated; it can only bring harm ...
In just a little while there will be no one
who causes hurt.
You will glance at where they were,
and they will be there no longer.
But the humble will inherit the earth.
They will delight in their long contentment.
And this, from Psalm 42:
Why are you bent so low, my soul?
And why so in tumult over me?
Be hopeful; wait for God.
In my translation, because I refer to God as neither masculine nor feminine, I often refer to God by one of the divine attributes—Holy One, Eternal, Creator, and a whole range of others. For those of us working to heal and transform the world, one of the most important of these names is Source of Hope. God stands for comforter, companion, and hope for a better world. From the midst of darkness, the psalmist cries out, "Min ha metzar karati ya," lines from Psalm 118, which is among those Jews sing on all major holidays. "From a place of constriction I called to you," the psalm reads, "and you answered with an expanse of heavenly presence ... God is with me, I have no fear. / What can a mere mortal do to me?" Ultimately, this psalm and others like it help us reclaim not only our hope but also our power.
Another aspect of the psalms that is essential to our pursuit of ecological and human justice is the realm of wonder. The lines of these verses often evoke a rapt awe at the natural world. We who dedicate ourselves to environmental causes are accustomed to bemoaning the pollution and denigration of our environment. But for the psalms, nature stands as an ideal—a clear example of God's providence and presence in our lives. More than that, the psalms envision a world in which our moral lives will one day approximate the clarity and beauty of nature. I believe that a return to a sense of wonder at the natural world is essential to our fight to preserve and rescue the planet, that we will succeed only when we combine a sense of the real dangers and threats with a wonder at the beauty that surrounds us.
Here is an excerpt from Psalm 104:
Stand in wonder, O my soul, before the Eternal.
Holy One, my God, you are vast beyond measure ...
You stretch out the sky like a cloth,
rafters over water in the realms above ...
You send forth springs into rivers.
They flow between mountains;
you provide water to all beasts of the field ...
You cause grass to sprout up for the cattle,
crops for the labor of human hands,
bringing forth bread from the earth,
wine to delight the human heart—
Soon sinners will vanish from the earth,
the wrongful exist no more.
Stand in wonder, O my soul, before the Eternal.
Let my soul shine praises on God.
The word "sinners" may initially turn people off, but in Hebrew it really means those who have missed the mark. What this psalm envisions is a day when all people, under the influence and grandeur of nature, turn from ways of violence and greed. In Judaism, the soul is envisioned as "pure." Every morning we have a traditional prayer thanking God for our soul and its original purity. The vision of the natural world expanding into our inner world, so prevalent in the psalms, is important to hold on to during these muddy and difficult times.
We need today, more than ever, to be stubbornly hopeful in our pursuit of justice—in the face of all evidence, scientific and otherwise, to quietly say, "I believe in the possibility of change." Psalm 27 begins by addressing our fears and ends at a place of conviction. Here are the final lines:
Teach me, Source of Justice, your ways,
and lead me down the level plain
because of the dangers that surround me on every side.
Don't give me over to the breath of my fears.
For distortions have risen up in the name of truth,
they breathe out visions of destruction.
If only I could believe that I would see God's goodness
in the land of the living ...
Keep up your hope in God.
Strengthen your heart and sturdy it.
Keep up your hope in God.
Cynicism and burnout are so common among progressives that they have become virtually occupational hazards. That makes sense. We see the contradictions and disappointments so prevalent in our political, personal, and economic lives. As the psalmist says in Psalm 39, "And so it is futility, all human beliefs—Selah." Cynicism is certainly a tempting conclusion to come to. The problem is that the world is not changed by cynicism. Cynicism too often translates into a failure to engage productively, a sidelining of oneself in the name of perfection.
But in the psalms, cynicism is never the final word. Let's look at Psalm 1, the first psalm in the Book of Psalms:
Blessed are those who walked
not influenced by the guilty,
who in the path without purpose did not linger;
in the dwellings of scorners did not long dwell.
They are consumed with the teaching of God
and meditate on divine wisdom both day and night.
They will be like a tree transplanted along a breach in the river
that yields fruit at its appointed season
and whose leaves never cease to produce;
all their labor streams forth to fruition.
Not so with those who act wrongly.
They are like chaff carried by changes in wind.
The wrongful will not stand in the light of justice,
nor the purposeless in gathered testimony of the true of heart.
Because God attends to the road of the righteous
and the road of the wrongful is covered with weeds.
What this psalm reminds us, apart from the potentially polarizing categories of right and wrong, is that to act rightly in the world is itself to live a life of blessing. This is entirely independent of outward success or failure. We need to change the world. That is certainly and desperately true. But in the meantime, we have the psalms. Take another look. You may be strengthened and surprised.
Pamela Greenberg is a writer and translator. Her translation of the psalms, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation was published in April by Bloomsbury (see www.thecompletepsalms.com).
Greenberg, Pamela. 2010. Speaking Our Pain: Anguish, Wonder, and Comfort in the Psalms. Tikkun 25(4): 30