By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb
Thousands of years before this ‘unprecedented’ pandemic, our Jewish tradition was already providing us with the spiritual practices and coping mechanisms we use to get through difficult times.
The Psalms, when we date them historically, span at least five centuries, and some are as old as the 5th century B.C.E (over 2500 years ago!). Throughout the ages and generations, people of all faiths have taken comfort in these ancient words of guidance, reassurance, expression and catharsis. The Psalms put to words our despair, delight, horror, hope, exhaustion, exuberance, fear, faith, and renewal, reminding us that human experience is as old as time, and that in many ways, there is ‘nothing new under the sun’.
If we look at Psalm 32 for example, a psalm of thanksgiving for recovery from illness, we see how a piece of writing thousands of years old can resonate with us as if it had been written yesterday. Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes of Psalm 32, that in the beginning, “the patient is in total isolation, trapped in illness, sunk in him/herself, wasting away.” (Weintraub, Rabbi Simkha. Healing of the Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strengths & Solace in Psalms, p.35) Similarly, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, writing about Psalm 41, describes how, “as we struggle to come to terms with illness, we hear our own voices in this meditation on suffering” (ibid, p.41). We can relate to the psalmist, who wonders where she will find strength and courage to face the fear, anger and grief she is experiencing. We can empathise with the psalmist. When we hear the psalmist ask, “why have You afflicted me, O God?” we think of the many times we have cried out with those same words.
The Psalms reflect back to us how we often blame ourselves when we are faced with adversity, questioning what we’ve done to deserve what is happening to us. They share honestly the experience of begrudging others their joy when we are only feeling sorrow. And they also remind us that there is tremendous power in faith and in the hope of better times. Rabbi Cowan writes about how our experiences often reflect the despair we see in some of the psalms, yet they also, “contain the wisdom that can lead to our healing… Our healing does not lie in self-pity (but in turning to) the deepest part of ourselves… seeking comfort from God, and in reaching out (to one another). Allowing ourselves to be comforted, we can comfort others, and bring about a great tikkun/repair to our world.”
Whether we have come through illness or watched a loved one struggle with illness; whether we have lost someone recently or are simply feeling despair at the ongoing difficulties of our present reality, we can turn to our ancient texts for solace. We are not alone in feeling the way we feel. Those all around us are likely struggling with similar emotions. Even thousands of years ago, these emotional responses were valid in responding to adversity, illness, loss and fear. By reading the Psalms, we remember that those who came before us made it through difficult times, and so can we. After all, we need only to flip the page from a psalm about suffering to a psalm of celebration, to know that times will be better, and that we will have opportunities to come together again in joy, in song, and in gratitude.
Kein Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will.
Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za
• Published in the print edition of the May 2021 issue. Download the May 2021 issue PDF here.
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