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Intro: Teaching Psalms in Times of Upheaval

Image by Harold Levine

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum has served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah since 1992.

I first encountered Sefer Tehilim, the Book of Psalms, in 1974 when I was 15 years old as a transfer student from public school to Frisch Yeshiva High School. This book has been a vital part of my life ever since.

Many years and a few lifetimes later, as the rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) during the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis, I often recited tehilim at the beds of sick and dying congregants. And then, while, sitting with their bodies after death, I would take out my small copy of Sefer Tehilim and read them before the body would be taken away for burial.1

During two very serious surgeries of my own, I asked my community to engage in a psalms project in which congregants, friends, and family signed up to recite a psalm each day. In that way, the entire book would be recited on my behalf daily. I took the list of 150 Psalms with me to the hospital and looked at the list of the assigned “reciter” and felt enveloped and comforted by both the words of the psalms and the love of those reciting them. In the process, I received many moving letters from people describing their growing relationship to “their” psalm.

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, I started working from home on March 16, 2020. That same day, I announced to the CBST community that I would begin teaching the Psalms the following week, doing so every morning for 30 minutes, Monday to Thursday. Initially, I thought we would study one psalm a day, providing students with a brief overview of each poem and the opportunity to reflect on it.

That quickly became impossible—as of June 3rd, we are finishing Psalm 6 (and we have extended our class to 45 minutes)!

Over 80 students join me four days a week. Most are CBST members, but not all. Most are Jewish, but not all. We have participants from Bulgaria, England, France, Mexico, and Sweden (not to mention several US states). Some have deep Jewish knowledge and life experience, while for others this is the first time they are studying a Jewish text. We typically study the psalm in Hebrew with a “basic” translation. We then compare and contrast this interpretations and adaptations by Robert Alter; Gaya Aranoff Bernstein; Norman Fischer; Richard Levy; Stephen Mitchell; and the Metsudah linear translation.

We also have presentations and discussions on various topics, including issues of authorship; the organization and editing of the book; different types of psalms; Biblical poetry; comparisons between the TaNaKh, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, as well as translation issues related to Jewish and Christian theology; and the use of the Psalms in Jewish liturgy and popular culture. Sometimes I lead these sessions, other times participants do so.

Enthusiasm for the course has grown so much that we now have four students serving as our musical team; one of them guides us in and out of each class with a musical offering (including original compositions). We also have two students serving as “teaching assistants” for the class. We even have a dedicated Facebook group to continue the discussions and where participants post various resources and articles personal psalms.

This is where the magic began to happen! 

Participants are actively creating their own work based on the texts and commentaries we are studying. Some are accomplished writers, while others had never written a poem before. Some are visual artists, others are composers. We now spend dedicated time each week sharing our work and exploring the creative process.

The group is engaged in holy work in the midst of terrible, uncertain, and frightening times.  The psalms being created reflect the depth and breadth of human experience found in the original Book of Psalms written thousands of years ago.

This class has been the anchor to my days and to my spiritual life during this unprecedented moment in time. I am deeply grateful to all the students who are journeying with me.

We are honored to be able to share one example of the creative work of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s students: The following is a recording by Cantor Jacob Niemi of Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin (and a CBST member) of his original musical composition “Lay Me Down in Peace,” inspired by his study of psalms 3, 4, and 5.  

 

Verse 1 and 2:

Lay me down in peace,
lay me down in wholeness,
for You alone, O God, keep me safe from harm
Lay me down in trust,
lay me down in faithfulness,
and let me not forget that You are with me.

Refrain:

Koli el Adonai ekra,
vaya’aneini me’har kodsho.2

Addendum to Verse 2:

Lay me down tonight,
but don’t lay me down alone,
and when I call out, will You answer?

Verse 3:

Lay me down in love,
lay me down in gratitude
for all I still have, and all that’s yet to be.
Lay me down in grace,
lay me down in glory,
and raise me up again for a new day.

1It is a widespread custom in Jewish religious communities to recite the Psalms, which include many personal prayers for healing and protection, for the sick and recently departed.  

2“I will call out to Adonai, and God will answer me from God’s Holy Mountain” (Psalm 3:5).

 

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