Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart – New Class Starts 7/9/2020

Image: King David with his harp, mosaic from the Gaza Synagogue, 6th c. CE. (Alexander Siviridov, Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The Book of Psalms is a treasury of poetry that expresses the full range of human emotion, from despair to ecstasy. Many traditional translations obscure the richness in the Psalms with flowery or euphemistic language, but the original psalms themselves are muscular, even raw, as they express the deepest truths of the heart.

I would like to study this 2500-year-old collection of human expression with you. Each week we will explore another Psalm in English; I will offer some insights from the Hebrew, and from various commentaries. Students bring their own insights to the mix. No Hebrew is required, although students who read Hebrew are welcome. 

Registrants will receive a Zoom link from me the day before the start of the course.

Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart will meet Thursday, July 9, 2020 thru Thursday, August 20, 2020, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM Pacific Time. For more information, and to register, please visit the course’s page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog. Sliding scale for tuition, and financial aid is available.

A Psalm for the Depressed

Image: A man holds his head in his hands. (Gerd Altmann /Pixabay)

Dear God. Dear. God. Hear my cry!

Like the Hebrews in the hand of Pharaoh, I am locked into the depths of a depression. I know it is an illness. I have sought treatment, and I am following directions as well as I can.

The words of Psalm 6 speak to me and to all the sufferers:

O God, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

Have mercy on me, O God, for I languish; heal me, O God, for my bones shake with terror.

My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, God —O, how long!

O God, turn! Rescue me! Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.

For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.

Psalm 6:2-8

This is billed as “a Psalm of David” – wow. The great warrior king of Israel seems to understand depression very well. I’ve never particularly liked King David, but now I feel a kinship to him.

Then at the end, David reminds me that there is a road out of this awful emotional place:

Away from me, all you evildoers, for God heeds the sound of my weeping!

Psalm 6:9

Away from me, all you evildoers! Away, the voices that clamor in my head! Away the memories of cruel words said, away! Away, self-loathing! Away, shame! Away, away, away!

David reminds me that Someone is listening to my cry, and his psalm closes with hope:

God heeds my plea, God accepts my prayer.

All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalm 6: 10-11

Who or what is God in this psalm? My guess is that David was as unsure as any of us when he wrote this. He was sitting at the bottom of life’s bucket 3000 years ago, and he wrote this little psalm, one of the shortest out of the 150 that we have.

God isn’t the point of this psalm, even if God is the addressee. David – the warrior king, the poet, the sweet singer of Israel – wrote this letter to every sufferer who hides under the covers, or cries in the parking lot.

This psalm is a postcard of consolation. He is saying, I was there too, right where you are now. I survived it. You will survive this too.

If you have sought out this article because you are depressed, remember that you are not alone. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat by clicking on the link. You can call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You do not need to be suicidal to seek out those resources – they are available 24 hours a day to assist you. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Resources Helpline can help you locate other assistance, and it is available 24 hours a day – just click the link to get to the info page.

We are not alone.

Psalms: Treasury of Emotion

A woman on Twitter asked me tonight if I could suggest a prayer “to help (her) stay strong, positive.” She commented that most of what she had found online were prayers that seemed too formal for her. What a great question!

While it is always fine to pray in our own words, Jewish tradition offers us a treasury of prayers covering a vast landscape of human emotion. That treasury is the Book of Psalms, or to use its Hebrew name, Tehillim.

When people first look in the book, it may seem foreign. Unlike many books in the Bible, it doesn’t tell a story. It’s a collection of prayers that Jews (and others!) have found helpful for putting words to human experiences.

Some psalms address experiences I have not yet had, and they don’t speak to or for me. That’s ok. I browse past them and find the ones that speak to my experience in the present. It might be an entire psalm, or just a few verses. I can choose whatever I want.

I can also choose to omit what is not helpful to me. Psalms use language about God that may seem archaic to a modern ear. If the theology seems foreign, I am free to skip those verses. I am also free to seek an accessible translation. 

The nourishment in the Psalms is in the way they offer me a words for feelings that I can barely express. In giving me the words for those feelings, they put me in touch with generations before me who have had the same exact feeling. They can help me identify feelings more precisely, too. For example:

Psalm 13

(1) For the leader. A psalm of David.

(2) How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

(3) How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

(4) Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

(5) lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.

(6) But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to the LORD, for He has been good to me.

This is a little psalm but it packs a punch for me. It expresses the frustration I feel when some painful, stupid problem refuses to go away. The ancient author and all who have prayed it since have felt the same impatience. I’m not alone! People have been here before!

And then, if I am open to it, Psalm 13 offers hope. The author was comforted by faith; they offer me that comfort. “my heart will exult in Your deliverance” – my troubles will not last forever, and when they end, my heart will rejoice! I can borrow the author’s faith and courage long enough to survive the moment. Like the writer of Psalm 13, I can endure. 

Other psalms address other situations. I recommended Psalm 27 to the questioner on Twitter. If I am full of joy, I might look to Psalm 150.

There are many lists online of “psalms for such-and-such  situation” but I recommend browsing the treasury for yourself. I am awesome by the range of emotion available: everything from murderous rage to giddy delight. Psalm 23 offers poetic images that comfort. Psalm 58 is perfect when I totter on  the brink of cynicism or despair, when I have watched too much of the news, or let social media get to me.

I invite you to dig around in this closet of goodies. Some psalms may shock you with raw violence; others express great joy. Only the individual can know which one fits their moment, and so it is worth the investment of time to become familiar.

Notice how even the darkest psalms offer at least a bit of uplift at the end. Those psalms say yes, life can be terrible, but despair is not our way. Take the hands of the others who have walked this path, and know that you are not alone.