A psalm that makes us squirm


This column originally ran on Nov. 21, 2014, and is relevant today.

Psalm 137 – at least its first six verses – is one of the best known and best loved of our 150 psalms:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.

There on the willows we hung up our lyres,

for our captors asked us there for songs

our tormentors, for amusement.

How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning;

let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you,

if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Few words capture more completely the millennial-long love affair between Jerusalem and the Jewish people. To this very day, Jerusalem continues to tug at our heartstrings. The contemporary Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), writes: “Jerusalem stone is the only stone that feels pain; there is in it a network of nerves.” This is the very same stone that turns Jerusalem at sunrise and sunset into a magical city of gold and copper and light.

Until my years as a rabbinical student, I never read past the first six verses of Psalm 137. Indeed, during my youthful folk-singing days, I would frequently perform a mournful version of “Al Naharot Bavel” (“By the Rivers of Babylon”), which takes as its Hebrew text the opening verses of the psalm; I sang the song for years without realizing that the psalm had a most disturbing “Part II”:

Pay back, O Lord, the Edomites, for the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

the ones who said, ‘Tear her down, tear her down, to her very foundation!’

Daughter of Babylon, destroyer,

happy the one who pays you back for what you did to us!

Happy the one who grabs your babies and smashes them against the rocks!

Reading these words makes me squirm. How could this psalm, how could any psalm, celebrate the smashing of babies against the rocks? Nevertheless, given the historical context of exile in Babylonia, given the helpless impotence felt by the Israelites who were forced to become strangers in a strange land, given the sadistic taunts of our ancestors’ captors, one can understand, if not condone, their rage for revenge. The Israelite exiles were in no position to fight back physically; all they could do is to fight back with words.

In view of the fact that the concluding three verses of Psalm 137 express such violent hatred, it seems strange, almost perverse, that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) chose to include it as one of “ten psalms of having special power to bring a true and complete healing: R’fuat HaGuf (Healing of the Body) and R’fuat HaNefesh (Healing of the Spirit).” Rabbi Nachman designated these 10 psalms (16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150) the Tikkun HaKlali, the Complete Remedy. (“Healing of Soul, Healing of Body,” Rabbi Simha Y. Weintraub, editor, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.)

The apparent contradiction between the expressed violence at the end of Psalm 137 and its designation as a psalm of healing is resolved when one interprets exile as a metaphor for illness. As Rabbi Amy Elberg, one of several rabbinical contributors to “Healing of the Soul, Healing of the Body,” wrote in her introduction to this psalm, “I had always read Psalm 137 only in historical terms, the homesick lament of the Jews in exile in Babylon, weeping for Jerusalem, their home. But to read the psalm through Rabbi Nachman’s eyes is to imagine the lament as my own, as a cry of despair and longing in my own times of pain ...  when I am disoriented, forcibly removed from the normal, comfortable times and places of my life.”

Illness is exile. Illness takes us far away from the comforts of home by turning us into strangers in a strange land, by closing off all conversation with others and even with ourselves, trapping us in the prison of our own relentless pain. As Bob Dylan begins his frequently performed but ever enigmatic “All Along the Watchtower”: “There must be some way out of here .... There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.”

But there can be a way out of here; there can be some measure of relief from the confusion and the pain that illness brings in its wake. A sustained engagement with our Biblical Tehillim, our Psalms, even those psalms that might make us squirm, can bring us out of ourselves and back into relationship with all those who help us to heal – and back into relationship with the ultimate healer.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.

It Seems to Me, Rabbi James Rosenberg