The first night of my life when I heard a siren, I almost died of fright. I was eight years old and the Gulf War woke us up and out of bed. My mother placed gas masks on my brother and me, laid us down in our sealed room, and opened a small green book. I was in second grade and already knew how to read. A scrap of gray paper contained random numbers: 20, 121, 130. From the green book she read aloud verse by verse and we, small and frightened, answered after her. It was the first time I recited the Psalms.
I remember the words: ancient, strange, beautiful. I did not understand and yet I understood: “From the depths I called you, O Lord,” “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, from whence will my help come?” In my mind’s eye I saw a man standing in the dark in front of towering mountains, his soul possessed by darkness and fear. I was still frightened, but I knew that in this book there was someone who was just as scared as I was. Months later at school we read Psalm 27: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid when evildoers draw near to devour my flesh?” I didn’t understand the meaning of the word evildoer, but I felt the visceral terror of a person pursued by those coming to eat his flesh. I understood that Tehillim is a book written through great terror, communicating that fear and discussing it.
Poetry is a wonderful thing. From within a personal and private experience, a poet writes and his words reach the other side of the world, to another soul in another place and time. But the phenomenon called “Tehillim,” written about 3,300 years ago, has no equal in literature. There is even older poetry than it; known to us from the ancient epics such as Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia, the Indian Ramayana, the Greek Iliad and Odyssey—all still read to this day as ancient, wonderful works that reveal important spiritual and psychological foundations of human existence. But the intimate phenomenon of reading age-old mizmorim, in which a person in distress reaches out to a book written thousands of years before he was born and finds in it a contemporary outlet for his soul is unique in human culture. And these wondrous words were written in our own spoken language, Hebrew. Language is a dynamic, rapidly changing space, and the language of poetry often becomes obsolete within decades. Most English speakers today have difficulty reading Shakespeare, distant from them by only about 500 years. Hebrew’s resurrection as a spoken language, a miracle in itself, kept the Bible accessible and close. The Book of Psalms is accessible to us because we speak its language, Hebrew, which has changed but little.
But not only in Hebrew. When the Iron Curtain collapsed in Poland, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz translated the Psalms into Polish. In a short time, the book became an unprecedented bestseller and sold over a million copies. After the brutal desolation of the communist spiritual oppression, a tremendous thirst for simple religious speech arose. What is it in this ancient book that touches people like that?
Today, in the Autumn of 2023, as evening falls, darkness rises in the soul. I am afraid and worried about my people, my dear ones. I struggle with every breath. I feel as if my soul is in a state of vertigo—for a moment hopeful, for a moment sorrowful; a moment of trust, a moment of anxiety. Late at night, I open my Tehillim to Psalm 69:
For the lead player, on shoshanim, for David.
Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the mire of the deep, and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths, and the current has swept me away.
I am exhausted from my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail from hoping for my God.
And King David reaches out to me, the hand of a drowning man who plucks me from my whirlwind. The psalmist is perhaps the most honest person who ever walked the earth, and no human emotion is alien to him. He is known as a man of war but first and foremost he is a man of truth, voicing the fear, the terrifying feeling of suffocation, the drowning. The helplessness and distress in the face of the force of the repeated and unanswered request, in the face of the enemy at the gate seeking to take his soul. I read and re-read of the drowning David. Unlike other psalms which stipulate a time or event—“He fled before Absalom his son” or “He altered his good sense before Abimelech”—it is not known when this psalm was written. What caused this distress? A time of war and persecution, or maybe just the turmoil of the soul, the persecution of his own soul? I don’t know, but I feel he expresses the depth of my own distress.
Psalms are the weapon of the weak, of the powerless in the face of words. When I am full of gratitude, full of joy and doubt and sorrow, the ancient words come to me. They are such an intimate part of my inner language that I cannot imagine my life without them. They resonate with me and are relevant in ways I could not imagine. Reciting Tehillim at this time, during the current events in Israel, reveals to me how much of a warrior King David was, and how many of the psalms were written in the storm of battle. Towards the end of the book, mizmor 140 stuns me:
Free me, Lord, from evil folk, from a violent man (מאיש חמסים) preserve me.
Who plot evil in their heart, each day stir up battles.
They sharpen their tongue like a serpent, venom of spiders beneath their lip. Selah.
Guard me, Lord, from the wicked man’s hands, from the violent man preserve me, who plots to trip up my steps.
The haughty laid down a trap for me, and with cords they spread out a net.
Alongside the path they set snares for me. Selah.
I said to the Lord, “My God and You. Hearken, O Lord, to the sound of my pleas.”
Lord, Master, my rescuing strength, You sheltered my head on the day of the fray.
Do not grant, O Lord, the desires of the wicked, do not fulfill his devising.
They would rise. Selah.
May the mischief of their own lips cover the heads of those who come round me.
May He rain coals of fire upon them, make the violent evil man be trapped in pitfalls.
I know that the Lord will take up the cause of the lowly, the case of the needy.
Yes, the righteous will acclaim Your name, the upright will dwell in Your presence.
This psalm, written thousands of years ago, seems to predict the horrors of these days. I find that the strongest expression of evil in the eyes of the poet is “People of Hamas” (the evil violent folk), and he repeats this throughout the book. But the images in this chapter are so intense that they are read as our reality: the people of Hamas are evil schemers who lay traps and mines to overthrow righteous people with their tricks. The poet begs God to save us from them, to put a shield over his head as protection. I think of Simhat Torah when this prayer took on an existential, terrible meaning. David begs that his enemies will fall into ravines—the obstacles and pits and tunnels that they themselves have dug. And in the midst of this terrible reality, King David sends me a beautiful verse of strengthening and justifying the judgment: “I know that the Lord will take up the cause of the lowly, the case of the needy.” Even when the worst of all happens, God’s judgments are justice, and He demands the favorable judgment of the righteous. And I think of King David as a warrior, as a poet, as a great believer, a man who does not place his trust only in his military might but in something greater and more powerful than him, even when He is not revealed and when His judgments seem unbearably difficult, just as they do at this moment. This is how King David gained eternal life—not only as a king and a warrior but as a poet. His most personal prayer is also my prayer.
I turn to another beloved psalm, chapter 13:
To the lead player, a David psalm.
How long, O Lord, will You forget me forever? How long hide Your face from me?
How long shall I cast about for counsel, sorrow in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?
Look upon me, answer me, Lord, my God. Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes exult when I stumble.
But I in Your kindness do trust, my heart exults in Your rescue.
Let me sing to the Lord, for He has mercy on me.
Poets search for words, but great believers have the ability to say unbelievable things. Only the most faithful can turn to God in this way, calling out the cry of abandonment and loneliness: “How long, O Lord, will You forget me forever?” I feel abandoned, abandoned forever, at a loss, troubled day and night, haunted. And the wonderful recurring phrase “How long?”—until when and where will he shout his loneliness, his despair, his loss of power? He writes his own soul: the wounded, the frightened, the trembling. Here comes the terrible cry for help, repeated countless times in the book: “Look upon me, answer me!” Look at me, look at my distress, answer me!— perhaps the most desperate human request of man to his Creator. And what a terrible darkness in the soul, facing the joy of his enemies, facing the danger of death.
And out of dark terror is also born a deep sense of security. This is one of the marvelous phenomena in the Psalms. The very same chapter contains a desperate cry of loneliness and despair, and a few verses later a complete reversal of feeling. “But I in Your kindness do trust, my heart exults in Your rescue. Let me sing to the Lord, for He has mercy on me.” For years I have wondered about this turn-about that so characterizes the book—how is it that over four short verses the poet goes from the terror of death and a sense of abandonment to complete security in God’s grace? It was only years later that I realized that the shouting out itself gives rise to the faith and trust and confidence. Like a baby whose mother brings him into the world with a terrible cry of pain, a terrible cry that leaves the soul clear and pure—the cry is part of the process of escaping the panic of the strait. After the praying poet gives a roaring voice to the depths of his soul, the awareness of salvation is born within him. This is how the Psalms teach us the work of prayer from that time to the present day—a personal cry in a private language for every pain to the exhaustion of the soul, from which we can exit the strait.
This escape from the strait is not only for the individual. Leo Tolstoy writes in one of his letters that the deeper one goes into the human soul, the more universal things he will discover. Sometimes it seems to me that the deeper we go into the human soul, the more we arrive at the Psalms, to the most primordial encounter between man and God in moments of joy and sorrow. David writes in Psalm 119: “I shall acclaim You with an honest heart as I learn Your righteous laws.” Like all good poetry, Psalms is an amazing work of literary art that teaches inspired readers and writers how to create, or in other words, how to pray. To arrive with an honest heart and hence the path to thanksgiving and recognition of the Creator’s righteous judgments.
And back to these days. At noon on that dark Shabbat of the holiday of Simhat Torah, one of our sons went off to war. I almost died of fear, trembling, and sorrow for the little we knew, from worrying about him and others. And what does a person do when he has no way out? He cries and screams his way through. And like my mother and all the other women, I sat with my Tehillim, reciting from beginning to end until the close of the holiday, until my tears dried up and the breaking news broke me once again. I recite the Psalms again and again and feel that the Tehillim are reading me, dubbing my fear and sorrow, giving me a voice. Three millennia ago a Jew sat and poured out the agony of his soul in times of peace and war, and here he reaches out a hand of prayer and speaks to our own day, until we will be redeemed.
Bacol Serlui, an Israeli poet, literary critic, and teacher of Hebrew literature, is the recipient of the 2022 Yehuda Amichai Prize.
This translation, by Jeffrey Saks, is a revised and expanded version of an essay originally published in Makor Rishon. Translations of the Psalms have been adapted from Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (Norton).