Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Singing in a Strange Land of Trauma

By the Rivers of Babylon | Detail of the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem by Benno Elkan (1956) | Photo by Tamar HaYardeni via Wikimedia Commons
By the Rivers of Babylon | Detail of the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem by Benno Elkan (1956) | Photo by Tamar HaYardeni via Wikimedia Commons

An ancient song renews the possibilities of singing in this world on fire: how we can, how we will.

According to rabbinic legend, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was not built with any tools that could be used to wage war. Instead, a magical worm was employed to drill through stone and metal. Perhaps it was an earworm—burrowing through our consciousness in playback loops of musical memory.

“By the rivers of Babylon” is the opening of Psalm 137. Among the multicultural musical settings of this psalm over thousands of years is an iconic reggae song. The reggae song became an international disco hit that accompanied my first sojourn in Jerusalem as a college student. The song has been reverberating through my mind during these painful weeks and months:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion….
There the wicked carried us away in captivity,
Required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

In our diverse and often polarized communities, many of us have been moving through strange and alien territory as war continues to rage. Trust has been shattered on multiple fronts. Some of us find ourselves lashing out across lines that divide us, or retreating into silos and echo chambers.

Some of us search desperately for words of unity, only to discover that our words are salt to someone else’s wounds. We’re hypervigilant, fearing further betrayal. We don’t feel safe with each other. How shall we sing?

In the original Hebrew psalm, the exiles hang their harps upon trees as they are taunted by their captors. There is a vow to remember Jerusalem at all costs — lest one’s hand wither and one’s tongue be tied. God is urged to remember the destruction inflicted by the captives’ enemies. And then comes the gut-wrenching parting shot, aimed at the enemies themselves:

Happy the one who will seize and smash your little-ones against the rock!

Full stop. Deep breath. Here is the most brutal human rage, in the language of our own sacred scriptures. Some rabbis fervently wish this verse had been edited out. We would much rather see this kind of hateful expression identified with our enemies, not with ourselves.

Alternatively, some rabbis (I am one of them) believe that this most disturbing verse may hold up a redemptive mirror. Perhaps the courage to face our own human rage can bring us to greater compassion for the human rage of others across our lines of conflict — others who have also experienced exile, captivity, and horrific deaths of children.

Perhaps we can begin to understand how, beyond the flaring and subsiding of rage, the shattering of trauma persists: historical, collective, generation to generation.

The Flight of the Prisoners (c. 1896-1902), James Tissot | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“But centuries of hatred have ears that cannot hear,” sings Tommy Sands of the devastating violence in Northern Ireland that took the lives of two personal friends—one Protestant and one Catholic:

An eye for an eye was all that filled their minds
And another eye for another eye, till everyone is blind.

When blinding, deafening, unhealed trauma takes the driver’s seat, it can justify and perpetuate itself through endless acts of hatred and violence.

So how can we sing in today’s strange lands of trauma? Psalm 137 offers an opportunity to pause from relentless media onslaughts and come back to ourselves. As a song of remembrance, the psalm spans a range of human experiences beyond rage: despair, disorientation, longing, resolve, hope, even joy. When we stop and check in with ourselves, we can recall that we too have a range of feelings—and choices about what to do with them.

The psalm opens with the grief that has inspired musical compositions for millennia. This grief is vital to the process of trauma recovery. If we are in a place of relative stability and safety, we can allow ourselves to grieve — as often as necessary. This is the power of that Tommy Sands song “There Were Roses,” which he brought to Israeli and Palestinian concerts in 2010:

There were roses, roses; there were roses—
And the tears of the people ran together.

One rehumanizing pause at a time — one rehumanizing song at a time — we can heal and bring an end to the reactive cycles of trauma and violence.

Remembrance and mourning can also embrace rage directly without giving it the last word. In a famous 1852 speech often called “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?,” American abolitionist Frederick Douglass connects the taunted captives of Babylon with American slaves compelled to endure celebrations of national “independence.”

Ablaze with moral indignation — and warning his listeners not to emulate the example of the Babylonian captors — Douglass begins to recite Psalm 137. Yet he stops pointedly before the vengeful finale. Instead, Douglass adapts the verses about remembering Jerusalem as I-statements that affirm his own commitments to true justice, regardless of what his listeners may do:

I hear the mournful wail of millions!…If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’

Most of us struggling in the shadows of current war do not consciously uphold the violence of Psalm 137’s final verse. Yet too many of us flinch away or push back as competing traumas spill out into bias and hatred on all sides.

Overwhelmed by faces and names of “those bleeding children of sorrow” with whom we most identify, we unconsciously keep millions of other “bleeding children of sorrow” faceless and nameless. All too often, we are unable to summon enough courage and compassion to see the full human tragedy of which we are part.

Natural consequences follow. Whether we are tongue-tied or long-winded, lifesaving humanitarian pauses elude us. Inundated with warring words and images, we forget that our hands can actually reach out to all the bleeding children of sorrow. The children who manage to survive carry the agonies of war into scarred adult bodies and psyches. Trauma wins again.

Yet songs continue to offer themselves for the cleansing of rage and hatred. Even if we don’t identify as singers, streaming channels of musical memory keep ear-worming through our brains. With the awareness that music can be medicine, we can program our internal playlists for greater healing.

Like Frederick Douglass and Tommy Sands, the “Rivers of Babylon” songs on which I came of age do not give the last word to vengeance. Instead, those songs adapt the final verse of Psalm 19:

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight, here tonight.

The question of who is addressed by the singer remains changeable and open. Perhaps it is God — however we might understand “God.” Perhaps it is our fellow human beings whose hearts and minds we seek to change. Perhaps it is ourselves, as we struggle with our own suffering.

Perhaps it is those bleeding children of sorrow — all of them, not only the ones with whom we identify most easily.

For the sake of all the children past, present, and future, I sing: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you. One sacred pause at a time, may we learn the ways of peace and healing through trauma — so that true justice can be realized in our generations.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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