At the end of the daily Shacharit or morning service there’s a psalm for the day known as Shir shel yom. The Mishna (Tamid 7:4) records that on each day of the week the Levites would sing a different psalm (as a choir with instrumental backing) in honour of the particular day. When the Temple was destroyed, the recitation was retained not only in memory of those days but also in the hope of future restoration, a time when the songs could again be freely sung in this place.
In my mind there’s something affirming not only for the future but for the present in the recitation of these psalms. The very idea of a day being connected to a song is a joyful and positive recognition of the spirit of every day. It’s a statement of the power and potential of each day – the unique beauty of this piece of time; twenty-four hours textured for my use; a slice of eternity that is mine to shape and respond to with the fullness of my being.
As a Jew it’s also a connecting fibre, weaving me into the glorious past of my people “This is the day of the week on which The Levites in the Temple used to say…”. It’s a satisfying connectivity to the song lines of my nation. It’s also about the audacity of faith and hope: In the wake of the devastation, the loss of Jewish independence and over a million lives, the scarred scholars created songs and prayers to fill the void, heal the battered heart of the people. This has always been the Jewish way in the wake of tragedy and loss. The modern state of Israel is an astonishing example of this life-affirming resoluteness.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 31a) suggests that the particular psalms selected reflect a day in the week of creation. The Zohar (quoted by Rabbi Raymond Apple) connects each psalm to a different millennium, the seventh being the messianic age. These daily psalms speak to me personally not so much about creation and millennial movements but rather about justice and defiance, courage and clarity.
Almost all of the psalms reference social justice, decency and integrity. Sunday’s psalm (Psalm 24) defines holiness not as some ascetic, ethereal state, but as the possession of “clean hands and a pure heart”; Monday’s song (Psalm 48) talks about Jerusalem being a place to meditate on God’s love and righteous judgement. It also has some breathtaking lines: “Walk around Zion, and encircle it, count its towers, note its strong walls, view its citadels so that you may tell a future generation that ‘This is our God forever and ever’…”. Each time I walk around the old city of Jerusalem these words resonate off its honeyed, creviced walls.
Tuesday’s lyrics (Psalm 82) are short, sharp and to the point: “Do justice to the weak and the orphaned… the poor and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy”. Wednesday (Psalm 81), the turning point of the week, has a psalm of intense passion at its heart. It’s about the failure of humanity and talks to me about our times: the evil “pouring out their insolent words… full of boasting” across the internet. “They kill the widow and the stranger” regardless of who they are from Charlottesville to Christchurch, Paris to Nairobi. They especially aim their invective to ‘crush your people’ be they in Jerusalem or Pittsburgh. The final psalms of the week turn to the Shabbat with the Shabbat Psalm (91) reaching for a Messianic time, an age when humanity moves beyond strife and evil toward respect and harmony.
When I say the daily Psalm I am moved to discover my own special song as well as the spirit of the day. I’m reminded of my own challenge to help the needy and vulnerable, to uncover the best part of myself in order to address the worst of our world.
At this time of the year it’s about addressing the needs of those struggling in our Melbourne Jewish community and responding (as the introductory Halacha of the code of Jewish Law to Pesach states) to their pressing needs for Pesach. The Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund and Jewish Care are just two community organisations helping those in need in our community.
One of my favourite lines from David’s book of songs comes out of the Sunday psalm: “This is the generation of seekers”. Every generation has its seekers and ours is no exception – you just have to recognise, respect and join them to make this world of ours a better place; week by week, day by day, hour by hour…
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Ralph Genende