An ancient rabbinic legend teaches that one of the miracles God performed for the Jewish people was allowing the smallest of spaces to comfortably hold our massive numbers (Leviticus Rabbah 10:9). This provided us a special intimacy with each other and with God as we journeyed to and through the promised land. This idea of mu-at machazik et ha-merubeh, the tiny containing the tremendous — which also included the way Noah’s ark housed all animal species on earth and one stone provided water for an entire people — was our ancestors’ way of marveling at the paradox we at times experience of something so small being filled with so much.
I suggest that Psalm 117, the shortest of the biblical psalms, is an excellent literary and liturgical example of this paradox. A mere 16 words, more-or-less evenly divided between two poetic lines, it contains a resonant, full-throated command to every human being to praise God as part of a global chorus. But there is much more than meets the eye here. The tiny contains the tremendous; less is so much more.
Let’s look at the psalm, in the original and translation. (I’ve used the JPS translation but replaced all gendered pronouns in the translation with the word God.)
הַלְלוּ אֶת-ה׳ כָּל-גּוֹיִם שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל-הָאֻמִּים
Hallelu et-Adonai kol-goyim; shab’chuhu kol-ha’umim.
Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol God, all you peoples.
כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ וֶאֱמֶת-ה׳ לְעוֹלָם הַלְלוּ-יָהּ
Ki gavar aleinu chasdo; v’emet-Adonai l’olam — Halleluyah.
For great is God’s steadfast love toward us; the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever — Halleluyah.Psalm 117
US poet laureate Billy Collins once bemoaned his students trying to “force confessions” from poems by jumping too quickly to figure out the one thing that they assume a poem must mean. Poems, like scripture (and a psalm is both) can have many meanings and I suggest that the more meanings to be found, the better a poem it is. In the words of poet John Ciardi, equally important as what a poem means is how that poem means: how the words, rhythms, contexts and images of a poem sound and how they make us feel. From there, we can take a few faltering steps to understanding what they might mean.
The imagery of this little poem’s first line always feels big to me. The author isn’t just calling the people in their own community or even the entire Jewish people, but the whole world to praise and extol God. The words goyim, peoples, and umim, nations, are more than a mere repetitive flourish. They are an example of conscious poetic parallelism common to biblical poetry that intensifies an idea by repeating it in some other manner. Imagine the poet on a mountain with a global megaphone that can reach every human ear. What are they shouting? “Everyone, wherever you are, whoever you are, stop what you’re doing and shout your praise to God!” The poet’s command conveys a raucousness matched in intensity only by their frustration; after all, who can get literally the whole world to stop and praise God?
On the other hand, the poet’s command might not be that at all. Maybe it’s just an energetic expression of joy coming from such a deep place in the poet’s soul that they can’t help shouting to the world, “Join me in praising God!”
Command, shout of intense joy — or both? Who knows? Wrapped in so much ambiguity and intensity, the poet’s emotions become our megaphone, concentrating and amplifying our own wild love and praise for God. They help us to open ourselves with spiritual and emotional intensity as well. Halleluyah! Praise the Lord.
But why praise the Lord? The second line of our little poem offers us a big yet no less ambiguous clue:
Ki gavar aleinu chasdo; v’emet-Adonai l’olam — Halleluyah.
For great is God’s steadfast love toward us; the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever — Halleluyah.
With all due respect to the magnificent Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, I think its translation misses the mark. The Hebrew verb gavar means to be strong or mighty. When combined with the preposition al (on or upon) it means to overpower and can refer to subduing an enemy (2 Samuel 11:23). In our psalm (and in Psalm 103:11) it means to overpower us (gavar aleinu) with love.
Here is the way I would translate this phrase:
For God’s steadfast love overpowers us; the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever — Halleluyah.
The parallel structure of this line once again intensifies this idea of being overpowered by God’s love.
We now must ask: Who is the “us” that God’s steadfast love overpowers? Is the poet still calling all of humanity or just the Jews? That word aleinu, “upon us,” is ambiguous, which is what makes this last line so amazing to contemplate and pray.
Psalm 117 is part of Hallel, Psalms 113–118. These are psalms of praise recited on all the major pilgrimage festivals, Hanukkah, in modified form during each new Hebrew month, and most recently in history, on Israel’s Independence Day. This liturgy is also known specifically as the Egyptian Hallel because of Psalm 114, a poem of praise to God for delivering the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, the central biblical paradigm of God’s redemptive power in history.
On the one hand, Hallel is a poem cycle that mostly praises God for delivering us, the Jews, from Egypt and other oppressions. It explicitly mentions our often-difficult relationship with the goyim, the other nations of the world, three times. And as we move from Psalm 113 to Psalms 116 and 118, the overall theme of these poems becomes increasingly particularistic, focusing exclusively on God redeeming the Jews from non-Jewish enemies. This exclusivity reaches its poetic extreme in 116 and 118, through the poet’s use of the first person singular (“God saved me”). Perhaps the singular people of Israel are being symbolized here by a single person calling out to God. Psalm 117 is sandwiched between all these other poems. It’s logical to assume that the psalm is commanding the rest of humanity to praise God for loving the Jews specifically.
Logical but not entirely logical. At the very least, reading the words “upon us” inclusively is plausible, given the ambiguity of the poem. Why couldn’t or shouldn’t we read the poet’s call to the global human family in a more universal way: “People of the world, God’s love overpowers every one of us, Jews and non-Jews alike”? Bible scholar Rabbi Benjamin Segal makes the point that, “The ambiguity [of Psalm 117] is quite purposeful. Possibly the author wanted the reader to consider the relationship of God to non-Israelite nations.” (A New Psalm, 558)
This complex dual reading is not a modern liberal conceit; it’s in fact anticipated by the rabbis of Midrash Tehillim, an anthology of rabbinic teachings on Psalms 1–118, known to us since at least the 11th century, which contains interpretations from at least the 3rd century CE in the land of Israel. There, both readings of Psalm 117 are amply demonstrated.
The tiny contains the tremendous; less is so much more. Consider how much we’ve derived from just two biblical verses. In trying to capture the exhilaration of God’s love, the psalmist has given us two verses that refract an enormous range of perspectives, from the personal to the national to the global. From biblical times to our own day, we Jews have continuously struggled to balance universalism with particularism, with our being a part of the world while also being apart from the world.
This psalm also reminds us that the Jewish God is more than Emily Dickinson’s “distant, stately Lover.” Ancient people, too, sometimes felt God’s absence more than God’s presence (hence the rabbinic notion of hester panim — that God’s face was hidden). Perhaps this is why the psalmist feels the need to shout it at us. And in a world where it is popular to suppose God is hiding, in exile, or dead, such an affirmation can be jarring but also spine-tinglingly affirming.
Perhaps, in the end, we should think of Psalm 117 as a divine letter: one in which God swears love and loyalty to us, and practically begs us to read its few words over and over, in search of the messages of love and connection that can bring comfort to us and, perhaps, all peoples of the world.