Psalms as Prayer

Psalms as a spiritual reservoir in difficult times

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Reprinted with permission of the National Center for Jewish Healing, a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. 

Illness, suffering, and loss mute us--they leave us without words. Overwhelmed, confused, distraught, despairing--and/or profoundly grateful, reflective, renewed, attuned--whatever our state, we are often left speechless, feeling that words fall flat, or do not convey what we want, need, or intend. In the face of these challenges, those who are in pain, as well as those who care for them, may need new ways of communicating, new tools for talking, and new modes of relating.

Enter the Psalms

For centuries, Jews (and others) have turned to the biblical Book of Psalms for solace, guidance, catharsis, renewal, and much more. The 150 psalms that constitute this important component of the "Writings" section of the Jewish Bible reflect a wide range of experience and expression: anger and acceptance, complaint and comfort, despair and delight, fatigue and faith, and so on.

In approaching this body of ancient spiritual or sacred poetry, many have found words that "work" for them, or that help uncover their own words, hitherto obscure or inaccessible. Even though some of the language or images may seem alien, when one digs deep enough one may find wellsprings of great impact.

psalms with reading glassesUses of Psalms

Psalms pervade the established Jewish liturgy of morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services, but our tradition made the Psalms into a very "flexible" resource--encouraging us to turn to them when we need them, and be less bound by, for example, strictures that require certain prayers to be recited at certain times of the day. Thus, although certain psalms are, indeed, assigned to certain junctures (for example, from Sunday through Shabbat we travel through Psalms 24, 48, 82, 94-5, 81, 93, and 92 as the "Psalm of the Day"), we may always turn to the Psalms as "ad hoc" sources of support.

The Levites sang the Psalms in the ancient Temple, not unlike the way growing numbers of congregations welcome Shabbat on Friday night by chanting their way through six psalms (95-99, plus 29) praising the beauty of nature (corresponding to the six days of Creation) and culminating in the Psalm for Shabbat. Psalms may be heard at many moments in life: at the bedside of those who are ill, at the beginning of the blessing after meals, at funerals, when visiting a grave, and in many other settings. They are there to help express our great joy and devastating despair, our gratitude and our distress, life's "ups" and, of course, its "downs."

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Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW, is the Rabbinic Director of the National Center for Jewish Healing and the New York Jewish Healing Center.