March 3, 2005
A Key to the Soul
The Book of Psalms
The history of any people consists of more than the study of the events that have influenced the course of its development. Even more important is the record of the people's inner life, its values and aspirations, its views of the good life, its speculation about man and his place in the scheme of things. This is especially true of the Jewish people, whose long and turbulent career has spanned three and a half millennia, as well as six continents.
The life of the Jewish people was shaped primarily by the play of inner spiritual forces, and its survival to this day is inexplicable without taking it into account. An understanding of the Jewish character depends on a sensitive appreciation of its literature, which not only reflected the life of the people, but also helped fashion it. Jewish literature is, of course, long and varied. It exists in a number of languages, reflects many climes, and gives expression to a variety of moods and interests.
Yet, there is one book that stands out above all others in the expression of the Jewish soul, one that is second to the Torah alone in its influence on the Jewish mind and spirit -- the Book of Psalms. More than 50 psalms are included in the Jewish prayer book and a number of pious Jews recite the entire book weekly.
Aesthetically, Psalms is one of the most pleasing books in the Bible, consisting of a wide variety of lyrical poetry, the most beautiful spiritual poetry ever assembled. It has won a permanent place in the religious literature of the world, speaking to the men and women who read and reread it because it reflects the yearning of their own hearts.
It is neither a unitary book nor the product of any one pen or age. Tradition ascribes it to David, the "sweet singer of Israel," and the great king may indeed have contributed to it. But it is not the voice of a king alone that resounds in its pages. A number of its 150 chapters may have been composed by Levites who are referred to in their headings, others like the 20th psalm by priests or like the first or 49th by teachers of "wisdom." Many reflect the cries of simple souls reaching out from the depths for the God of their salvation, as well as the joyful tones of thanksgiving expressing gratitude for experiencing God's saving power.
What impresses the reader most is the amazing reality of the psalmist's sense of his closeness to God. What emerges from virtually each chapter is the communion of the individual soul with God, not alone in solitary moments, but most often in fellowship with others. Indeed, it is only as a member of the worshipping community that the pious person experiences communion with God in full measure, a view that has remained constant in the synagogue to this day.
For the psalmist, as for the Torah, genuine religiosity is expressed both in one's conduct and in one's life orientation. The zeal for righteousness is the sine qua non of the religious life: "Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not long after what is false, and does not swear deceitfully" (24:3f.).
Psalms, like the other books of the Bible, is not a philosophical tract but its pervasive theme leaps out at any one who immerses him or herself in its pages. It reflects a deep and abiding trust in God that brings with it a feeling of serene confidence and joy.
On occasion, the joy is muted by a sense of resignation and even despair, but crying to God "out of the depths," the psalmist discovers the saving presence of God. Humbled, he is ready to accept all that God chooses to send him. He is consumed by one desire alone, to be worthy of the divine love, to prove worthy of experiencing the divine presence: "Who have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee I have no desire on earth. My flesh and heart waste away, but God is my portion forever" (73:25f.).
There are many types of psalms such as petitions, laments, songs of thanksgiving and a variety of liturgies, including a number of pilgrims' songs. But hymns, calling on the congregation to praise God, are dominant. That is why the book is called Sefer Tehillim, the "Book of Hymns."
The hymn is very simple in its essential form, though occasionally complex in content. It generally consists of two basic elements: the call to praise God and the objective reason for doing so.
It is not surprising, then, that the shortest chapter in the book, and indeed in the entire Bible, is a hymn consisting of only two verses: "Praise the Lord, all ye nations; laud him, all ye peoples. For His loving-kindness is great toward us; and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." Note the combination here of the two elements that are held in tension throughout biblical religion: the assertion that God is concerned about all peoples and, at the same time, that he has a special relationship to a particular people, a theme which recurs through many of the psalms.
Some hymns trace God's revelation in nature, such as the majestic 104th psalm; others in the history of the world, and especially in the history of Israel, as in the oft-recited 114th. Most of all, God is seen as revealed in the Torah, Israel's most precious gift. Not surprisingly, then, the lengthiest psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible, the 119th, is an alphabetical acrostic in praise of Torah and of its divine author.
If Tolstoy is correct in judging a work of art by the universality of its appeal, then the book of Psalms is second to none in its greatness. It won the hearts of all through the ages and became their constant companion. It helped sustain countless men and women in their darkest hours and was a source of comfort and faith to those who regularly turned to its pages. It remains one of ancient Israel's greatest contributions to humanity, an inexhaustible source of solace and inspiration to the world.
David Lieber is president emeritus of the University of Judaism.