My heart is broken; how much loss can we endure. This week on one day we lost 21 soldiers – sons, husbands, fathers. It is so much to try to digest. Every day in Krakow, a place once bustling with Jews, we look for a minyan to keep the Jewish flame alive. And then, in one horrible moment, two minyans ascend to heaven defending our homeland. The pain is indescribable; the comfort, slow to arrive. Our best and brightest are being taken, our future feels like it is slipping away.
I often quote psalms, a passion of mine for many years. Almost every psalm has some positive conclusion, with the psalmist putting his faith in God, with a prayer that in the end for God’s salvation, for things to be all right in the end.
Not so with Psalm 88; the psalm begins with ‘sickness’ and ends with ‘darkness.’ I hesitate to study this together for it gives the impression that we are not, overall, living a truly remarkable, redemptive life, experiencing rebirth and the Hand of God. But days like October 7th remind me that we have not escaped struggle, horror, insufferable pain, and days like yesterday remind me that despite our amazing army and proud, confident and able soldiers, we will endure incredible pain. Today is a day to study Psalm 88.
It begins by telling us the authors, the sons of Korach, no strangers to loss, but survivors. Witnessing the world around them destroyed with their families falling into the pit, the midrash tells us that the sons of Korach did teshuva and were therefore saved. Of course, there is no comparison to our situation other than the notion of loss at those falling into the pit and how we, the survivors, respond.
The title of the psalm is:
א שִׁיר מִזְמוֹר לִבְנֵי קֹרַח לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל מָחֲלַת לְעַנּוֹת מַשְׂכִּיל לְהֵימָן הָאֶזְרָחִי.
- A Song Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician, according to Mahalath Leannoth (the sickness of suffering?), A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
Titles are always tricky for we do not have the entire context of each word, but ‘machala’ certainly can connote sickness and ‘leanot’ can mean torture or suffering. Does the title reference a case in which one feels a sickness at the indescribable amount of suffering?
The psalm begins typically with a call to God for salvation:
- O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before You;
- Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry;
But then, it goes dark:
ד כִּי שָׂבְעָה בְרָעוֹת נַפְשִׁי וְחַיַּי לִשְׁאוֹל הִגִּיעוּ. ה נֶחְשַׁבְתִּי עִם יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר הָיִיתִי כְּגֶבֶר אֵין אֱיָל. ו בַּמֵּתִים חָפְשִׁי כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר אֲשֶׁר לֹא זְכַרְתָּם עוֹד וְהֵמָּה מִיָּדְךָ נִגְזָרוּ. ח עָלַי סָמְכָה חֲמָתֶךָ וְכָל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ עִנִּיתָ סֶּלָה י עֵינִי דָאֲבָה מִנִּי עֹנִי קְרָאתִיךָ יְהוָה בְּכָל יוֹם שִׁטַּחְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ כַפָּי.
- For my soul is full of troubles; and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted with those who go down into the pit; I am like a man who has no strength,
- Free among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You do not remember anymore; and they are cut off from Your hand.
8. Your wrath lies hard on me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves (of anger). Selah.
- My eye grows dim through affliction; Lord, I have called daily upon You, I have stretched out my hands to You.
The harsh verses depict a man who himself, or as representative of Israel, is suffering. God hides His face, afflicts, even shows wrath, and then, worse, estrangement—from God, from each other, from kedusha (holiness)!
He concludes the section which began with his cries to God morning and evening in verse 2, with the frightening realization that all his crying has done is ruin his eyes—eini daava mini. What do you do if your cries do not work? How do you pray if you realize that nobody is listening? His answer is cry harder!
- Will You work wonders to the dead? Shall the shades arise and praise You?
12. Shall Your loving kindness be declared in the grave? Your faithfulness in Avaddon?
- Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
It makes no sense, God, for You to abandon Your loved ones, why would You send them down to the dark, will they be able to praise You from there?
- But to You I have cried, O Lord; and in the morning shall my prayer attend You.
15. Lord, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?
We keep praying to You, how can You forsake me (us)? Why do You hide Your face from us? What drives the psalmist (and us) crazy is the unpredictability of God’s providence. Why does He shine His light so brightly and then suddenly bring darkness upon us?
And then we reach the sad conclusion of this psalm, which as I said, does not leave us with our usual glimmer of hope. I repeat, this is not necessarily the exact corollary to our lives today as we do have hope (usually) and we do experience great joy in our nationhood, our ability to fulfill the prophecies of old and return to our homeland, and (especially for me working near Auschwitz) we do cherish the dream we are realizing today that our great-grandparents never even imagined.
And yet…with these words he/we conclude:
טז עָנִי אֲנִי וְגֹוֵעַ מִנֹּעַר נָשָׂאתִי אֵמֶיךָ אָפוּנָה. יז עָלַי עָבְרוּ חֲרוֹנֶיךָ בִּעוּתֶיךָ צִמְּתוּתֻנִי. יח סַבּוּנִי כַמַּיִם כָּל הַיּוֹם הִקִּיפוּ עָלַי יָחַד. יט הִרְחַקְתָּ מִמֶּנִּי אֹהֵב וָרֵעַ מְיֻדָּעַי מַחְשָׁךְ.
I am afflicted and close to death from my youth up; I carry Your fear of ‘perhaps’.
17. Your fierce wrath goes over me; Your terrors have cut me off.
18. They surround me daily like water; they close in upon me together.
19. Loving friend and companion have you put far from me, and my acquaintances are in darkness.
A debate ensued about the word ‘afuna’ (clearly unrelated to modern day peas). Ibn Ezra and Radak suggest the root word is pen meaning ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’. This I think is the most frightening affliction from God—the unknown, the capriciousness of when terror might strike.
Powerfully, the last word is darkness, teaching us that we should not always expect a happy ending. Some psalms teach us the harsh reality of a solitary existence for the moment and the scary feelings which consume him. The only optimistic aspect of the song is that he still sings to God, he still hopes to be answered. That is faith.
Today 21 funerals will permeate the land of Israel, rivers of tears. We are consumed by the unknown of when this will end, when we will be victorious, when our sons will come home. We are frightened to look at our phones in the morning; we can’t look away from them for the rest of the day.
עת צרה ליעקב indeed, a trying time for our nation, our people, the world. The most we can do is continue to pray, to hope, to love and to have faith.