Psalm 116: “Return, O my soul, unto thy rest”

16 12 2009

I don’t have a plan yet for the long-term viability of this project, but, in the spirit of the “one day at a time” attitude that I am desperately trying to cultivate in myself, I had a short thought that I would like to share in honor of Chanukah, the holiday of light and the redemptive power of hope. (See this post from last year for a longer thought about Chanukah.) I also wanted to thank you all for your comments, both public and private. They mean the world to me. And, rest assured that I won’t continue with this if I decide that it isn’t good for me. I need to balance that feeling, though, with the thought that it might just actually be my best chance at (psychological, if not spiritual) redemption. Scary. (Oh, let’s be realistic, what isn’t?)

Psalm 116 appears in the Hallel that we say every morning during Chanukah.

Psalms Chapter 116 תְּהִלִּים

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע יְהוָה–    אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי. 1 I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי;    וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא. 2 Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him all my days.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת–וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי;    צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא. 3 The cords of death compassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֶקְרָא:    אָנָּה יְהוָה, מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי. 4 But I called upon the name of the LORD: ‘I beseech thee, O LORD, deliver my soul.’
ה חַנּוּן יְהוָה וְצַדִּיק;    וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם. 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהוָה;    דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ. 6 The LORD preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי:    כִּי-יְהוָה, גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי. 7 Return, O my soul, unto thy rest; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי. 8 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד. 10 I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted.’
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי:    כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב. 11 I said in my haste: ‘All men are liars.’
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַיהוָה–    כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי. 12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
יד נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה–    הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
טז אָנָּה יְהוָה,    כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ;    פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; {N}
I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
יח נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית יְהוָה–    בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:
הַלְלוּ-יָהּ.
19 In the courts of the LORD’S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. {N}
Hallelujah.

The entire Psalm is beautiful.

Here, in the middle of the joyous Hallel, where mountains dance like rams, we admit that we are, right now, in a place of “trouble and sorrow.”

Now that I look, I see that other parts of Hallel also contain a strong element of calling out to God from the narrow place, or מיצר. For some reason, I always had the impression of Hallel being a wholly celebratory, happy sort of collection of Psalms (that I loved to hate on when depressed). I probably had that assumption because we say it at celebratory occasions, like Chanukah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Rosh Chodesh. Also, probably, because this Psalm as well as many of the others is expressing the point of view of a person who has already been saved or redeemed: “וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.” “He saved me.” “כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.” “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” But before today, I never noticed that some of Hallel can be read as coming from a place of deep despair.

I think that my favorite line from this Psalm is the fervent hope expressed in these distressed words from the seventh verse:
“!שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי”
“Let my soul return to your rest!”

My soul, which was once at rest and at peace, is no longer. I beseech you, God, to return my soul to your rest, to your peace, to your comfort. Please God, listen to me, and speak to me, and, most importantly, let me hear your words and feel your eternal presence in my life.

The word, “מְנוּחָיְכִי” which comes from the root נח, or rest, has many connotations to me. Rest and comfort, but also, somehow, a loving embrace of God. Perhaps because it sounds (a little bit) like the word חיבוק, or hug. I don’t know why.

I am certainly not feeling that מנוחה, or rest, at the moment, but it’s times like these that I am so glad that I have these resources at my disposal. These words, in my lips and on my heart, with which to say:

Please, God, let me have back what I once had.

Please, God, let me have the kind of peaceful, restful soul that I imagine that others have, that may have always eluded me.

Please, God, incline your ear towards me. Be gracious and compassionate even when I cannot be. Especially when I cannot be.

And if it’s not quite true that “הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד,” “I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted,'” well, maybe saying the words makes it so. In this case, I sort of think it does. Whatever reason I say these words, my saying them, in the midst of my great affliction, means that I still have hope or trust in God, or something greater than myself and my own deep personal pain and sorrow. I must still believe, a teeny tiny bit, in redemption, or I wouldn’t say these words.

And, finally, the words that get me every time:

ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.

I shall. Because that’s where God wants me, and that’s where I will be able to “כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא” or “lift up the cup of salvation.”

Happy Chanukah!


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