Psalm 30 is one of my favorites. It’s words have given hope to Jews and others for thousands of years. The book of Psalms was the first prayerbook of our people and it still serves that function for those who have opened its pages.
This Psalm is part of the very early morning service. When we do say it here at BSBI there are usually no more than half a dozen worshippers present. It is a shame that so few Jews know this Psalm because it is such a gem. One verse in particular moves me: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
The author of this Psalm must have experienced something that shook him to his core. Apparently he, or she, went through a traumatic experience and was moved to make a vow to God to seek help in surviving the moment. Perhaps he was on a sick bed and promised that if he survived he would forever give thanks to God. He writes, “I had once thought in my security I could never be shaken. Your favor, O Lord, made me a mountain of strength; when you withdrew Your favor, I was terrified. Then I cried out to You, O Lord; I laid my pleas before my God.” And then he goes on to promise unending praise if only he would survive.
The truth is, I don’t approve of that kind of bargaining. It is too much like the old story of the fellow looking for a parking space who promises God the world if only he could park his car. Suddenly, he sees a vehicle pulling out of a legal space and he turns to the Almighty and says, “Forget it. I’m all set.”
I am a rationalist. I don’t believe in magic, be it by using potions or lucky charms or reciting Psalms. Judaism prohibits such things because they border on idol worship. But we cannot always control our emotions. When we are in trouble we tend to be less than rational. The theology of foxholes rules supreme; our emotions supersede our intellect and we grasp at anything. Clearly, it worked for the Psalmist, and when I read the words, I hope it will work for me as well. When we are in trouble, we put rationality on a back burner.
We don’t know what actually happened to the author of Psalm 30. Something of a terrible nature destroyed his or her illusion – the fantasy so many of us have – that nothing bad can happen. Yet, life came around a corner like a speeding bus, it turned on a dime, the blanket of security was torn away – choose your favorite metaphor. It all comes down to the same moment when terror strikes.
Apparently, the Psalmist had this experience, and yet, somehow, from the depths of despair he realizes that he can go on believing in God; he even feels that he must. He recognizes that this is still the same world that was so wonderful before, and if he made the mistake of overestimating his security in the past, he is not going to make the mistake now of underestimating the potential for goodness that still exists.
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
We err on the side of misery when we let our bad times erase the potential good that lies ahead.
Perhaps what we are seeing here is what we call maturation. When we become grown-ups we recognize that life has downs as well as ups, and we demonstrate true maturity when we manage to not allow the bad times to make us forget the good of the past and the good we can look forward to in the future. So often in life events come along that make us replace our childish conviction that all is well and no evil can happen with a more mature and realistic faith. And what we learn is that we do have the strength to go on, even believing in God despite the fact that the Almighty does not always shower us with blessings.
Rabbi Sam Chiel spoke here some years ago. He explained that this Psalm served as a support for him in his time of need. One awful night Rabbi Chiel began to suffer severe chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. He shared with us what was going through his mind at that moment. Would he fully recover? Would he forever be an invalid? Would he be able to continue serving his prestigious congregation as a rabbi? Searching for hope, he took out his siddur and turned to Psalm 30. “Baerev yalin bechee – Weeping may linger for the night, U’lvoker reenah – but joy comes with the morning.” These words he had recited so many times suddenly had a depth of meaning he had never felt. He clung to the words like a drowning man grasps a passing life raft. He reports that the words had an incredible effect, easing his fears and restoring his hope that eventually he would be able to return to work, and indeed he did. A short time later he required triple bypass surgery, and again this verse was his rock in time of need. Since then, he says, it has remained his constant companion.
Sometimes illnesses are fatal. Too often, the result of illness or accident can be life altering, and not for the better. But most often, serious illness has an arc of recovery, even if recovery does not mean total cure or full restoration of capacity. There are inevitable setbacks and small triumphs, times of extreme vicissitude and moments of victory. Psalm 30 knows that arc. “You turned my lament into dancing. You undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy.”
A rabbi relates an incident of a man who asked him this question: Rabbi, tell me. I have attended the synagogue faithfully for years, yet look at the sadness my family has just suffered. And look at my neighbor who never goes to shul. Nothing has happened to him or his family. Tell me Rabbi, what have I been going to shul for?
If not exactly in those words, that is the essence of the question many of us have? What is the point? What is the purpose of all these hours of prayer?
To whom hasn’t that question occurred? This is the essential question of the efficacy of prayer.
I pray regularly, so this is an issue with which I have grappled over the years. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would like to share with you some of my thoughts.
I don’t believe my hours of prayer are creating a credit line such that God owes me anything. Never do I think that it gives me any guarantee that nothing bad will happen to me or that my retirement portfolio will do well. I don’t think that any thoughtful Jew prays for that reason. It would be theologically abhorrent and absurdly simplistic. I pray not because I have perfect faith but because I want to strengthen my faith. I want a relationship with the Master of the Universe so that when days of trouble come – and they do come to all of us – I will have the strength to go on. I pray that I will have the perspective to give thanks for the blessings I do have and will continue to have. I pray so that I will be able to withstand the inevitable vicissitudes of life. When bad times come, I don’t want to go to pieces; I want to know and feel that even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will know that God is with me.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, may he rest in peace, was a great rabbi and intellect. He wrote a classic, Basic Judaism, which I used for many years with all my prospective candidates for conversion to Judaism. He tells of a Jewish agnostic who asked him how he could go on believing in God after what happened in the Holocaust. Here is Rabbi Steinberg’s reply: “Would I be better off if I stopped believing in God because of that? Will the world be a better place if I stop believing? Will I honor those dead if I give up my faith when they died believing? Will I be able to turn somewhere else to find the strength and the moral determination to go on fighting evil and alleviating sorrow? Now that I have learned just how deep the roots of evil are, how pervasive misery is, I need even stronger faith than ever before.”
An important lesson of Jewish history has been the ability to believe despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. You may know the line from the prayer about the coming of the Messiah called “Ani Maamin.” It is widely believed that Jews on their way to the ovens in the death camps sang these lines. “Ani ma’amin b’emunah sh’leimah b’viat hamashiach – I believe with a full faith in the coming of the Messiah. V’af al pi sheyitmameiah, and even though he tarries, im kol zeh, ani ma-amin, yet do I believe.”
Jewish history is witness to the fact that in the face of persecution, in the face of the most terrible of tragedies, our faith can endure. Consider the faith we are asked to demonstrate after we have lost a loved one. In the service, after Psalm 30 is recited, the mourners present rise to recite the Kaddish prayer – but only if there is a minyan, ten adult Jews. Some people find this minyan requirement unfortunate. I think this rule demonstrates the wisdom of our tradition.
With the Kaddish prayer, the mourner is declaring in public – in the midst of a minyan – that despite what has happened, in the face of losing a dear parent or spouse or sibling or even a child – at that awful time – the mourner is standing before all assembled and saying, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash – magnified and sanctified is God’s name. At this very moment when it would be understood if she cursed God, she instead rises to praise Him, to affirm her belief in the goodness of God’s world. Judaism does not posit a God who changes the world to meet each individual’s needs. Our tradition has us give thanks to God who created the world and through our faith we try to understand it and appreciate all the good that it has to offer.
And there is something else important about needing a minyan to say Kaddish. It teaches us that sorrow is universal. When Shmuel rises to say Kaddish, he sees that Hershel does as well, because Hershel too has lost a love one. Shmuel sees that he was not singled out. We can be helped in maintaining our balance in the face of life’s trials if we recognize that sadness is the lot of all humanity. Absolutely everyone has his or her pekel of tzurus. You have no monopoly on tears. Sadness and trouble is an equal opportunity oppressor. Knowing that does not lighten your burden, but it helps you to bear it knowing that you are not alone.
And so, in this Yizkor hour we all come together. We look around the room and we see other survivors. We see others who have walked in that dark valley and are still here to tell the tale. As we look around and see those who have suffered losses, we recall the good times we celebrated with them even after they suffered a loss. We think not only about funerals, but in our minds eye, we see dancing at a bar mitzvah celebration, or a simcha dance around a bride and groom raised high on chairs. It is not only the mournful notes of El Moleh Rachmim that we recall, but in our heart we hear the joyous melody of Hava Nagilah as well.
“Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.”
The truth of those lines strikes us, and they give courage.
Yizkor is not about remembering death but life. We recall that we suffered a tragic loss, or sometimes it is a loss in the course of things that is not so tragic but surely nonetheless a reason for sadness. And we look at the closing words of the Psalm and we realize how very wise and comforting our tradition can be.
“Hafachta mispdee l’machol lee – You turned my mourning into dancing; You changed my sackcloth for robes of joy. So that I may praise You and never be silent. Lord my God, I shall praise You forever.”
In this Yizkor hour we will mourn, not dance. But we do look forward to joy and perhaps even dancing, in the future, and we know, deep in our hearts, that for so much in our lives we stand in debt to those we recall today. Zichronam l’vracha. May their memories forever be a blessing. AMEN