It’s one of the commonest words and, it’s one of the most sublime sentiments. It’s the word halelujah, praise or sing out loud for God. Thanks to Leonard Cohen, it’s now one of the most well-known Hebrew words across the world. Of course, he didn’t coin it – it was another Jew, King David, arguably the greatest poet of the Hebrew language.
The word does appear in a different form early in the Torah, but it is in the book of Psalms that it is elevated and enshrined for eternity. It’s used some 24 times in the book of Psalms; it’s evocative, it’s uplifting; just the word itself induces joy and dance. Not for nothing have countless tunes been set to the exquisite cadences of the Haleluyah psalms.
They are part of our daily tefillah and the celebratory psalms are the centrepiece of our beloved Halel prayer recited on festive occasions . When the rabbis sought songs to express the joy of the newfound Israel and then the restored Jerusalem, Halel was the natural choice. And so we belt out the lyrics on Yom HaAtzmat and Yom Yerushalayim: This is the day which God has made /singled out. Lets be glad and rejoice in it …(Psalm 118).
The book of Psalms with its 150 poems, is however, not only about celebration. It’s a wide -ranging exploration of the whole gamut of of human need, desire, distress and grief. It’s about power and powerlessness and, it’s about hopefulness and hopelessness.
Over the weeks of lock -down I have read a lot of psalms and a lot of poems. One of the books I have been re-reading is entitled Poems that make grown men cry. (There is also a sequel of poems that make grown women cry).There are many deeply moving and great poems here. And so many have echoes of the psalms. The psalms that speak to me during this pandemic are found in our daily prayers, predominantly in the early morning tefillah in the Pesukei DeZimra. There’s a lot to say about these psalms. But for now, let me just say that they rupture my heart, sear my soul and tear up my eyes They segue seamlessly into the screens of suffering from across our planet. They talk directly to the fears and anxieties of our age. They speak of loss and loneliness, they address the horrors of sickness and plague, they recognise the pain of financial ruin, they acknowledge the deep existential enigmas we are facing. They are the broken haleluyahs Leonard Cohen sings about. They are, above all, about our powerlessness in a world where the storm will not stop at our bidding.
“Be kind to me Lord, for I am weak. Heal me, Lord my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish..for how long?… My eyes are dimmed by grief..”(Psalm 6).
One of the most popular events at the Adelaide Festival in February was a concert called Powerlessness,part of a series on a “150 Psalms”. The Song Company performed choral settings of a number of Psalms dealing with the subject of power and the struggle of humanity with its vulnerability and the loss of control. Just how prescient can you get -a world that in February was drunk on its own power is now, in May, drinking deep of the well of helplessness and impotence.
Celebrated Australian Vietnamese writer Nam Le wrote a magnificent introduction to the concert. His words are chillingly eerie in presaging our age: “Why are things the way they are? Why are they not the way I want? Why is everything so unfair? Why do I have to do this – and why can’t I do that. These pleas …toll through these psalms of powerlessness…”
These are indeed critical and compelling questions for a pandemic period. And how we respond to these questions will shape our future. Let’s hope that our response will be that of King David in his immemorial Psalm 30: “You turned my mourning into dancing …I will sing praise to you and not be silent“.