Songs of Praise – A War Diary
“For the director of music. With stringed instruments. On the sheminith. A song of David.
God, do not rebuke me in Your anger or chastise me in Your wrath.
Be gracious to me, God, for I am feeble; heal me, Hashem, for my bones are frightened.
My soul is utterly terrified.
And You, God, how long?
Return, God, and deliver my soul; save me for the sake of Your kindness.
For there is no memory of You in death. Who praises You from the grave?
I am weary from my sighing. Every night I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak from anger, aged by all my adversaries.
Away from me, all you who do evil, for God has heard my weeping.
Hashem has heard my cry for mercy; Hashem accepts my prayer.”
In the 17th century, a poet named Andrew Marvell [1621-1678] would use your exact thought–“There is no memory of you in death. Who praises you from the grave?”–though perhaps not for your exact purpose. His prey is no doubt divine, but not Divine:
“The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace/Now therefore, while the youthful hue Sits on thy skin like morning dew/And while thy willing soul transpires At every pore with instant fires/Now let us sport us while we may, And now, like amorous birds of prey…” To His Coy Mistress, 1681
As you can see, David, Marvell was not trying to save his life but simply satisfy his erotic ardor. Still both you and this Metaphysical poet understood that life is for the living, and whether it is the quest for divine mercy, or a very different form of devotion, the pressing salvation of the moment is foremost in your minds.
All of us in Israel are prisoners of time, caught in a warp in which days and nights pass and one is unaware of the calendar, the seasons, the sun and the moon, the stars. The angels bow to one another, cherubim and seraphim, innocents who know nothing of bullets and borders. But our planets are the news sites, our galaxies the whatsapp updates. We are fearful, wordless and worldless, hallucinating from media and sleeplessness, suffocating with dread about the inevitable heroism, the awful and awe-filled offerings, the bloodied altar that awaits 18 and 19 year-old kids and 20 somethings.
Kids who a moment ago were in third grade, and then “annoying” us with their teenage narcissism.” Kids who should be doing nothing at all on a bright sunlit street, or playing video games or kicking a ball or dancing or learning Gemara and filling the Beit Midrash with song, or buying clothes and telling stupid jokes. Kids who should be growing up and growing older.
Their mothers and sisters carry your book everywhere, David. Everywhere. I see them on buses, park benches, elevators, office buildings, supermarkets, parking lots – places that are now sanctified by your words of spiritual comfort and human liberation. Some of them are holding babies at the same time as they clutch your book, tightly. They glimpse down at the page briefly, and then they look up and continue to enunciate each word with the residue of the language imbuing their lips and their eyes. They keep on repeating your mantras, no longer even glancing at the page.
How strange for you to be unaware of what a literary star you would become, now that your well-rehearsed defenses, your years of authority, have all collapsed and fallen on your weary head. You are feeble and frightened, tormented and terrified. The god of karma has reduced you to the fetal position, curled up with nothing left to draw upon save for your sheer vulnerability: “I am weary from my sighing. Every night I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.”
“And you, God, how long?” Amen. You should know that these days, most people turn to Prozac in place of prayer. And in addition, there’s Paxel and Zoloft and Celexa, and Effexor and Norpramin and Wellbutrin and Xanax and Valium and Ativan. These are our new priests, the guardians of our Temples. You did not have such relief available. Just your harp, maybe some wine and memories of women.
But in the end, the very end, when self-deceit and arrogance are quietly slipped off and left by the door, then one morning at 4 am you woke in the darkness and realized that everything: this throne, this pride, this sword, this secret lust and shifting heart, this semblance of power, this unquestioned command, the king flush with identity and affluence – all would vanish.
And only God would or could do, only He “has heard [your] weeping”. And were you answered? Did you get a sign? Would you have prayed less, or more, in the age of anxiety? What would your pleading have looked like if your daily ministrations included anti-depressants? Would you feel like one of us?
And what would you think if I told you that, To His Coy Mistress was published posthumously, only saw the light of day three years after Marvell’s light was no more? That he did not live to see his words, his ultimate dreams, come to pass. That he died suddenly, in public, surrounded by his constituents at a town meeting, on August 18, 1678. That some say he was put to death by poison, murdered while in perfect health. So that he died young, or too young. David, what would you say to that?