David Walk

In Praise of Remembering – Psalm 137

When we think of TEHILLIM or Psalms, we think of soaring praises to the glory of God. The word TEHILLIM, of course, means “praises.” So, when we consider chapter 137, AL NAHAROT BAVEL, we ask ourselves: Why is this lament a Psalm? In fact, this question is even stronger against being called a Psalm, because the Greek root “psalmos” literally means to “pluck a stringed instrument,” and in our poem the Singer says that the Leviyim have hidden their harps. The psalm itself is uncomfortable, and seems more appropriate to EICHA (Lamentations) or KINOT (Tisha B’Av elegies), but it’s got a message which has resonated throughout the millennia. 

The nine verses of the poem neatly divide into three equal sections. We begin with the MATZAV or situation, the Jews are in exile, trying to cope. The middle, and most famous part, is the oath and commitment. The end, which is most uncomfortable, is the revenge. 

There is a major debate about authorship. The Midrashic approach attributes the authorship to King David, and claims that the poem was written with prophetic vision. Although I don’t deny David HaMelech’s Divine inspiration, I feel much more comfortable with the more literal approach of the Ibn Ezra and others who attribute the authorship to an anonymous Levite, who experienced the trauma of the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash (586 BCE), and its aftermath. 

Our chapter begins, almost benignly, with the Leviyim sitting on the banks of the waterways of Babylon, that metropolis which bloomed in the desert of modern Iraq. The verse states: we were settled, but we also cried (verse 1). YASHAVNU (we sat) sounds innocuous enough, until closer examination reveals the profound sadness in this otherwise pleasant setting. The Babylonians, apparently, wanted the leadership groups of the Jews to settle in and become complacent, but these Leviyim would have none of that. They wept over the missing Temple, and hid their harps so that no attempts by their captors (SHOVEINU, similar to YOSHAVNU, ‘we sat’, so the ‘sitting’ was also ‘captivity’) to get them to sing the ‘Songs of TZIYON’ would succeed. 

Now comes the core of the lament, and the true power of the poem: How can we sing a song of the Lord on this alien soil? (verse 4). The beautiful music of the Beit HaMikdash will always be inappropriate in this incompatible setting. So, the Leviyim make a double oath: If I forget you O Yerushalayim, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you (verses 5-6). 

The literal meaning of these two phrases is clear. The Leviyim don’t want to utilize their musical skills in service to any cause other than the Beit HaMikdash. The right hand controls the harp chords, and the voice sings the praises of God. Let those skills never be applied anywhere else, especially in GALUT. 

We can’t allow existence in the Diaspora to become normal! So, even though these verses have applied to all sorts of customs of continued mourning (breaking glass at weddings, leaving a bare space in homes) for the Beit HaMikdash, its core meaning is about remaining vigilant to assimilation in GALUT. Verse 6 ends with the famous requirement to recall in sadness the Destruction even in the midst of a joyous occasion, ‘If I fail to set Yerushalayim about my highest joy!’ 

Note carefully that there is no prohibition of joyous occasions in Galut: we can get married, bear children, build homes, plant fruit trees (Yirmiyahu 29:5-7) in exile. We just can’t stop pining for Yerushalayim HaBenuya. This is the profound meaning of the Levitical statement in verse 1: Yes, we are settled, but we also can’t stop crying! Stop the tears; end the Hope. 

This brings us to the difficult and controversial final three verses. We begin with mentioning Edom. Many Midrashic sources claim that this was Kind David prophesying about the destruction of the second Temple, because Edom is often identified Midrashically with Rome. However, the PSHAT is that we ask for the Edomites to be punished because they participated in the destruction with the Babylonians in 586 BCE (Ovadia 1:11-14). 

Then we turn to Babylon. We fully expect the imminent destruction of this odious predator of the ancient Fertile Crescent. Our Singer declares that the destroyer of the Babylonian Empire should be ASHREI (satisfied, fulfilled, rather than ‘happy’). Did the Singer know it would be Persia, who would be supportive of Judaism? 

This uncomfortable poem ends with a most disturbing image, the vicious murder of babies. This horrifying image appears four other times in later books of Tanach (Melachim II 8:12, Yeshayau 13:16, Hoshea 14:1, Nachum 3:10), never in the time of King David. Again, I believe strongly that this dreadful idea was envisioned by those who witnessed the horrors of the destruction of Yerushalayim. That harrowing experience gives them a pass on certain statements. They could never do this deed themselves, but they envisioned a certain satisfaction in the vicarious revenge when the Persians would visit some of their horror upon our persecutors. 

Our Psalm is hard to read in the context of our wonderful book of glorious praises to God. On the other hand, we believe strongly that its message of memory and resilience will be the medicine to help us regain the splendor, and restart the marvelous music.     

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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