Balm for our souls

The recitation of Tehillim was always seen as a major weapon of Israel in its struggle to survive in a very hostile world.

tehillim and gas mask 88 (photo credit: )
tehillim and gas mask 88
(photo credit: )
Over the past month, all of the regular prayer sessions in our synagogue have been concluded with the recitation of three chapters of Tehillim - Psalms. The time honored Jewish custom has always been that in times of danger and duress, whether for an individual or for the Jewish people collectively, the recitation of Tehillim on behalf of the amelioration of the situation is in order. The purpose of this recitation of Tehillim is to beseech God to intervene on behalf of the person endangered or the people of Israel when they are threatened. The recitation of Tehillim was always seen as a major weapon of Israel in its struggle to survive in a very hostile world. Since God and His ways are inscrutable, we almost never have any accurate measure as to the effect that our recitation of Tehillim had on any one given situation. Jews nevertheless believe that the recitation of Tehillim in times of trouble is a necessary and effective means of reaching out to the Lord for help when all else has failed. However, the benefit of the recitation of Tehillim is not restricted to the improvement of the situation itself. It is also and perhaps even primarily so of benefit, psychologically and spiritually, to those who are reciting the Tehillim themselves. It gives the otherwise helpless bystander an opportunity to do something positive and to feel productive in their hour of need. One should never underestimate the need for such an outlet in times of stress and trouble. Tehillim are not only comforting, but prescient as well. In our synagogue, we recite the eighty-third psalm daily now. That psalm, written well over two millennia ago, details by name all our current enemies. The Palestinians appear therein as do the dwellers of Tyre in the Lebanon. Present-day Syria merits oblique reference in the psalm. Our ancient, seemingly indestructible enemy, Amalek, is also mentioned. Amalek takes on different guises in the world and in Jewish history. In the story of Purim, Haman is portrayed as being a descendant of Amalek. That Amalek was a leader of Persia, the forerunner to present-day Iran. Haman has worthy successors in today's Iran. Thus, the entire set of main characters in our current drama are described to us in the "playbill" of the eighty-third psalm. I find it oddly comforting that this psalm reads like current events and not like ancient history. It reinforces my belief as to the effectiveness and relevance of reciting Tehillim. It also buttresses my faith that just as those ancient enemies of Israel were defeated and relegated to the ash heap of history, so too would their current successors meet the same fate at the hands of the people and the God of Israel. Tehillim is most comforting in its sense of the reality of the situation and its optimism in seeing victory at the end of the day. The old Jewish joke had a Jew running away in despair from a potentially disastrous occurrence and shouting: "We can no longer rely on miracles. Therefore, let us now begin to recite Tehillim!" Jews saw the recitation of Tehillim as a natural reaction to a troubled time and not necessarily as purely an appeal for miracles. No matter how the situation unfolds there are appropriate psalms present in Tehillim to help us somehow cope with the events and trauma of the time. The rabbis of the Talmud elevated the recitation of Tehillim to the level of Torah study itself. The recitation of Tehillim is a daily event for countless numbers of Jews the world over. The psalms of Tehillim are an important facet in the contents of our daily prayer services. Tehillim are recited at all occasions and life cycle events in Judaism's practice and ritual. Tehillim are joyous and song-filled; they are also sober and realistic. They come to comfort us in our hour of need and to console us in the midst of our sense of loss and pain and grief. Tehillim are present with us under the wedding canopy and at the gravesite, in our homes and in our synagogue, in the hospital and in the doctor's waiting room. It is therefore perhaps the most ubiquitous book in the Jewish library, for it accompanies us everywhere on our life's journey. In Temple times the words of Tehillim were the lyrics for the music of the Levites. In our times, the words of Tehillim are the balm for our souls and the comfort for our broken hearts. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (