Friday, June 29, 2012

Psalm 131. Prayer for comfort

I am continuing my reading from Sefer Tehilim (the Book of Psalms).  I try to recite one psalm every day from the first to the 150th.  Some psalms are part of the morning service: numbers 20, 30, 100, and 145-150 are recited every day, as well as the psalm of the day.  Psalm 24 is also recited when the Torah is returned to the ark on Monday and Thursday.

A few days ago I read Psalm 131 and it immediately grabbed me.  Psalm 131 is short, and is part of the series of "Shir Ha'maalot" (Songs of Ascent), Psalms 121-134.   It reads (combining the Metzuda and Robert Alter translations):

     A song of ascents for David.
     Lord, my heart has not been haughty,
     not have my eyes looked too high,
     nor have I striven for great things,
     nor for things too wondrous for me.
     But I have calmed and contented myself
     like a child that is weaned from his mother,
     like a weaned child I am with myself.
     Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,
     now and forevermore.

This psalm begins with a message of consistency and calm.  We do what we can in this life.  We strive to take comfort in the small pleasures that make living worthwhile.

The process of mourning has its lows and highs, some moments of deep sadness and some of comfort and acceptance.  But mostly there is the regularity of going to shul, saying kaddish, continuing to live one's life, coming to terms with the new reality.

But then, unexpectedly, the psalmist invokes the image of the weaned child.  Is the weaned child content?  A child that feeds from his mother's breasts is content.  The weaned child no longer enjoys this comfort.  The physical intimacy between mother and baby has been severed.  What, then, is the comfort of which the psamist speaks?   Perhaps it is that the weaned child has survived infancy and is ready for the next stage of development.  The stage of separation, of developing one's own personhood.

In this way, the death of mother is the ultimate and final weaning.  How to find calm and contentment after mother is gone?   Perhaps, the psamist suggests, though striving for humility and achievable goals, I will find the calm and contentment "like a child that is weaned from his mother."

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