Psalm 137 is a lament of longing for a community torn from home. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the first Temple that had been built by King Solomon, and uprooted large numbers of people, deporting them hundreds of miles to the east. This tragedy is mourned in the psalm, which includes such famous lines as “By the rivers of Babylon” and “If I forget you, O Jerusalem.” This psalm is well known from Jewish liturgy and from popular music (from Bach to this famous reggae song from the 1970s).
Psalm 137 is recited on the eve of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples. It opens the liturgy, and sets the tone for the day. The liturgy of Tisha B’Av includes a wide array of kinot, poems of sorrow and mourning, giving voice to themes of exile and longing. But this ancient psalm, older than the kinot, captures the pain of exile from the Land of Israel perhaps most eloquently of all. The psalm is short — only nine verses — and can be divided into three parts, each with its own themes and challenges for today’s spiritual yearners. The first four verses read as follows:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors, for amusement:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?
In these opening lines, we can hear the sadism of the locals as they mock the newly-arrived Israelites: “Sing us one of those spirituals from the Old Country…” Some scholars remark that the Israelite response, “How can we sing… on alien soil?” reflects another aspect of loss: the poet, like many of the exiles, is wondering whether the God of Israel can hear or act when the people are no longer in their homeland. Perhaps prophecy and prayers only “work” when the People of Israel are located in the Land of Israel? This is more than a rhetorical question: the exile commemorated on Tisha B’Av is not only about distance from a physical place, but also from God. That distance is the cause of pain and loneliness that is reflected in the psalm.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Here, the pain of loss melts into resolve. The poet doesn’t know if God has forgotten, but the poet has not forgotten! The Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God and the people found great intimacy. The memory of this closeness is what Tisha B’Av is ultimately about: not a longing for sacrifices, but for the intimacy with God that worship evoked.
These lines are reflected in some well-known Jewish customs. In many times and places, Jews would leave a wall of their home unfinished or unpainted. This was a reminder that wherever the householder lived, it was still a place of exile until Jerusalem and its people would once again be whole. This practice is first described in the Talmud, Bava Batra 60b.
Another famous Jewish ritual reflects these verses: breaking a glass at a wedding. After all, surely the moment a couple is married must be their “happiest hour.” Shattering a glass at this moment reminds onlookers of the work still to be done, although perhaps this couple’s love is a step in bringing unity back to a fragmented world.
The final verses of the Psalm throw the reader a moral curveball:
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall;
how they cried, “Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!”
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!
The violent revenge fantasy of these lines is painful to read (smashing our enemies’ babies on the rocks!); many of us wish it wasn’t there at all! In fact, many liturgies don’t print them, closing the poem after verse 6, about keeping alive the memory of Jerusalem. What might we do with these harsh words?
It is not our task to validate these violent revenge fantasies, but we can seek to understand them. The poem doesn’t claim that anyone ever did these awful things. Instead, these words reflect the anger of the victim. Imagine the victim in a concentration camp — or consider your own feelings walking through Yad Vashem or the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Is anger not a valid emotional response? Can these feelings help us empathize with other oppressed peoples, and understand that suffering and oppression easily translate into rage? The imaginary deeds we would never justify, but the seething hurt behind these sentiments make the passage extremely, and uncomfortably, powerful.
All this reflects the deep spiritual power of Tisha B’Av. We remember that, no matter where we may be, we live religiously in a state of Exile. We long for a reconciliation with God and with one another. And, through our fasting, our mourning, our kinot, and this psalm we become more compassionate with those who suffer. Because we’ve been there, too, in our Jewish history.