Envisioning Gratitude and Rebirth: Shir HaMaalot, Psalm 126

In stark contrast to the fires burning across Israel at this moment, today is Thanksgiving Day in the US, and many of us here in US, and abroad are gathering with family and our dearest friends to enjoy each other’s company, devour turkey and vegetarian alternates, to celebrate our plenty and give thanks to our providential God for all these blessings, material and emotional. At this hour, we add our prayers for peace in Israel and the restoration of our burned land.

In Jewish tradition we give thanks following even the simplest repast, with the Grace after Meals; on Shabbat we preface the Grace with the wistful and beautiful Psalm 126, that relates our gratitude for our food to our gratitude that the dream of the restoration of Israel to its land has come true—and this psalm was composed not following Israel’s Independence in 1948, but sometime following the Persian king, Cyrus’ permission for the Jews to regain control of Israel in 538 BCE. In my illuminations, I express our gratitude for both the fulfillment of the early dream of the return to Zion, and the modern miracle of again, after 2,000 years of exile, drawing sustenance from our sacred soil.

Psalm 126-English
Psalm 126-English
Psalm 126, from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification
Psalm 126, from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification

Now, I don’t know about you, but despite having sung this psalm at every Shabbat and festival meal since infancy, given all the happy distractions of the busy dinner-table, I never really paid much attention to its actual words until I sat down to study it some years ago for my book, I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms, that was published in 2007. It has been a special joy to reconsider it carefully for my new Kabbalat Shabbat book. So, let us review this poignant poem:

A Song for the Steps of the Temple
When the Lord restored Zion’s exiles we felt we were dreaming.
Then our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with song.
Then they said among the nations: “The Lord has done great things with this people!”
The Lord has done great things for us. We rejoiced.
O Lord, restore our exiles like seasonal streams in the desert.
Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.
Though one goes out weeping as he carries his bag of seed,
he returns singing, as he carries in his sheaves.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless His holy name forever
We will bless the Lord now and forever. Amen.
Praise the Lord, for He is good, for his kindness is eternal.
Who can express the Lord’s mighty acts or proclaim all His praise?

As my collaborator and translator for this project, Raymond P. Scheindlin, suggested in his literary commentary, “the expression “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy” has become proverbial. After enunciating it, the psalmist concretizes it by imagining an actual person weeping as he sows, singing as he brings the harvest home, a touching image for Israel in exile and restoration.” Like so much of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, this psalm draws upon the agrarian background of early Israeli society; its verses employ agricultural metaphors — the value of water in the arid land, and seeding, often a matter of risky guesswork — to fuse Israel’s love of its sacred land of Zion to our faith in our providential God. It is this combined faith that the rabbis early applied to introduce the Grace after Meals.

The Hebrew and English illuminations contrast anxious and painful — yet still fertile — exile with joyful and fruitful redemption, using imagery expressing the agricultural metaphors within the psalm, in biblical era and modern views. Both paintings present the same locale, a spot on the modern-day Kibbutz Yotvata.

Psalm 126-Hebrew
Psalm 126-Hebrew

In the Hebrew illumination, the woman is not the glorious Sabbath bride or queen, but following Lamentations and Jeremiah, she is Jerusalem, mourning in the wake of exile, longing for restoration to her land. She drags the seed-bag behind her through the sunset landscape, yet in the midst of the barren landscape of stones and broken trees, the fallen seeds sprout with promises of rebirth that she does not see. The desert’s vernal springs tumble down a hillside, feeding the dry land with water, feeding the human realm with wisdom.

Psalm 126-English
Psalm 126-English

Brilliant day has arrived for the English illumination, a sparkling sky and clouds promising life-giving rain in the landscape of modern Israel; as the vernal springs again flow from the same hillside, young Israelis drive tractors through burgeoning fields and date orchards, cultivating the bounty afforded by hard work and divine providence. And again today, we pray for the regrowth of the land.


Psalm 126-English
Psalm 126-English
Psalm 126, from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification
Psalm 126, from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification

The illuminations fuse ancient and modern Israel by placing the two scenes in the same location, but including images of tractors and ancient archeology. The columns flanking the texts present a rosette pattern adapted from a frieze from a 4th-5th century synagogue at Chorazin in the northern Galilee, now in the collection of the Israel Museum. The columns are topped by proto-Aeolic capitals from Ramat Rahel, near Jerusalem, dating to the late 9th century BCE, contemporary with the early Davidic dynasty, now in the collection of the Biblelands Museum in Jerusalem.

Follow me in this blog for further adventures exploring the Jewish spirit through visual midrash! Full discussions of the poetry and paintings above may be found in Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, which was just published on September 6, the 3rd of Elul. The book may be purchased at your favorite book source, or by clicking here.  You can find out more about my Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and book-talks at www.dbandart.com.

May our providential God save our land. Peace for Israel.

Copyright © Debra Band 2016




About the Author
Debra Band’s works include illuminated books, ketubot and other artwork. She exhibits and lectures across the English-speaking world. Her celebrated books, fusing scholarship with fine art, illuminate the Song of Songs, Psalms, biblical women’s stories;the Friday night liturgy and customs, and her adaptation of the medieval classic, Perek Shira, All the World Praises You: an illuminated Aleph-Bet book (July 15, 2018).