Illness, suffering, and loss mute us–they leave us without words. Overwhelmed, confused, distraught, despairing–and/or profoundly grateful, reflective, renewed, attuned–whatever our state, we are often left speechless, feeling that words fall flat, or do not convey what we want, need, or intend. In the face of these challenges, those who are in pain, as well as those who care for them, may need new ways of communicating, new tools for talking, and new modes of relating.
Enter the Psalms
For centuries, Jews (and others) have turned to the biblical Book of Psalms for solace, guidance, catharsis, renewal, and much more. The 150 psalms that constitute this important component of the “Writings” section of the Jewish Bible reflect a wide range of experience and expression: anger and acceptance, complaint and comfort, despair and delight, fatigue and faith, and so on.
In approaching this body of ancient spiritual or sacred poetry, many have found words that “work” for them, or that help uncover their own words, hitherto obscure or inaccessible. Even though some of the language or images may seem alien, when one digs deep enough one may find wellsprings of great impact.
Uses of Psalms
Psalms pervade the established Jewish liturgy of morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services, but our tradition made the Psalms into a very “flexible” resource–encouraging us to turn to them when we need them, and be less bound by, for example, strictures that require certain prayers to be recited at certain times of the day. Thus, although certain psalms are, indeed, assigned to certain junctures (for example, from Sunday through Shabbat we travel through Psalms 24, 48, 82, 94-5, 81, 93, and 92 as the “Psalm of the Day”), we may always turn to the Psalms as “ad hoc” sources of support.
The Levites sang the Psalms in the ancient Temple, not unlike the way growing numbers of congregations welcome Shabbat on Friday night by chanting their way through six psalms (95-99, plus 29) praising the beauty of nature (corresponding to the six days of Creation) and culminating in the Psalm for Shabbat. Psalms may be heard at many moments in life: at the bedside of those who are ill, at the beginning of the blessing after meals, at funerals, when visiting a grave, and in many other settings. They are there to help express our great joy and devastating despair, our gratitude and our distress, life’s “ups” and, of course, its “downs.”
Over the centuries, certain Psalms became associated with particular moments or transitions in life, for example:
For times of communal distress: 20, 28, 85, 86, 102, 130, 142
For recovery from illness: 6, 30, 41, 88, 103
For thanksgiving: 9, 21, 57, 95, 116, 138
Reb Nahman of Bratslav, the Hasidic master of some 200 years ago, designated 10 psalms as having special power for healing: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150; he saw these as embodying the “10 kinds of song” outlined by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in the Talmud (Pesahim 177a.)
How to Use Psalms
So what do you do with these Psalms?
To answer that question, it would be helpful to identify seven “functions” that Psalms have developed in Jewish life:
Ritual: As a source of regular expression, to mark certain moments and give a container for feelings, ideas, and values–either in an established, traditional, communal context, or in one’s own personal, innovative time and place. One recent example is a Jewish support group that began each meeting with a psalm of despair or complaint (such as 13, 77, or 88) and ended with a psalm of gratitude (such as 18, 91, or 118).
Prayer: As with other forms of Jewish prayer, psalms may provide various opportunities: for giving words to hopes, fears, wishes, etc.; to both experience the pain and transcend it; to “name” one’s distress or gratitude; and/or to reconnect to tradition and community, or to a basic inner sense of wholeness.
Song: So many lines of psalms have been put to music, and even calling on the melodies without the words can have great impact. Here are several examples of lines from psalms that have become known as “Jewish healing songs” because of their words and/or music: 3:7-8; 27: 4, 14: 30: 9, 11; 51:12-13; 69:14; 94:18; 118:5, 19-20; 121 1-2, 4.
Study: The Hebrew of the Psalms is often obscure or otherwise hard to “crack,” having gone through centuries of recopying. This means that there is a lot to explore–for example, to compare how different editions translate the same lines. For those who have not explored a Psalm before, on the opposite page we offer one approach.
Meditation: Once one finds a piece from Psalms that resonates, that has meaning for you, you might want to focus in on it for a set period of time. Words of Psalms can be a valuable tool in refocusing, centering, and quieting oneself. Some people post a verse, phrase, or word on their office computer screen so they can freely turn to it in the course of a workday; others make their own audio recording to be able to play it back while sitting in a quiet, undisturbed setting.
Community: One profound Jewish practice organizes members of a Jewish community into a Hevra Tehillim, a “Psalm Fellowship,” which gathers with some regularity to study or chant Psalms together. In some places, when an individual is ill, the community has divided the 150 psalms among all its members, so that the entire book of Psalms is read and dedicated daily to cure, healing, strength, solace, and/or recovery. Community is an–maybe the–essential component of Jewish healing.
Conversation: In time, as certain words or phrases from Psalms become especially meaningful to you, consider weaving them into your speech, so that the ancient words bolster your ability to heal and integrate.
Mention must be made of “the psalmist in you.” Readers may be familiar with the remarkable writings of Debbie Perlman, Psalmist-in-Residence of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. Through her various challenges in life, Debbie has blessed us all by turning pen to paper and creating contemporary psalms that bridge the tradition with an intimate, first person, contemporary voice. Her most recent book is called Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing and Praise.
The strength of Psalms lies substantially in you–in what the reader brings to the words and infuses in them. Psalms are a container for our fears and hopes, a catalyst for the freeing up, and offering up, of our profound and deep-set wishes, prayers, desires, and insights.
Reprinted with permission of the National Center for Jewish Healing, a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.