By Rabbi Or Rose and Rev. Paul Roseraushenbush
“Listen to my words, YHWH, consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help…” (Psalm 5:1-2)
We are living in a time of widespread illness, ongoing racism, and deep fear and division. People throughout the world are crying out, raising their voices in protest and lament, seeking hope and solace. Our voices echo those over the millennia who have called out in every generation, turning to their spiritual traditions for guidance and inspiration.
Four weeks ago, the two of us—one rabbi and one minister—decided we wanted to explore the biblical Book of Psalms—a collection of beautiful, gritty, desperate, and uplifting prayer-poems—in our time and place. And so, we conceived PsalmSeason: An Online Encounter with the Wisdom of the Psalms.
Over the next 18 weeks (the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for life—chai), a diverse group of religious leaders; cultural critics; musicians; poets; artists; and activists will explore the Psalms, bringing their power to bear on our lives in this trying time. Like the ancient Hebrew writers, we seek to express our anger, dread, and sorrow, while also giving thanks for the preciousness of life and recommitting ourselves to actively work for a better future.
In turning to the Psalms, we join a great tradition of Jewish, Christian, and other seekers who viewed this time-worn text as a prism through which to explore their deepest thoughts and feelings. The ancient rabbis; Jesus of Nazareth; Johann Sebastian Bach; Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Fannie Lou Hamer; Elvis Pressley; Mother Teresa; and Bono have all engaged these evocative and existentially gripping texts in their quests for meaning and purpose.
As Dr. Ellen Davis of Duke University writes in her elegant introduction to PsalmSeason, part of what makes this ancient collection so compelling is that “the Psalms speak directly from and to the human heart.” Further, as Davis notes, “The book of 150 Psalms speaks with the most consistently personal voice in the Bible, often in the first person (‘I’ or ‘we’).” These ancient Hebrew poets model for us the power of calling out to God, to ourselves, and to our communities in different—often extreme—moments of life.
Sweet Honey in the Rock
While it is true that for centuries Jews and Christians have turned to the Book of Psalms, there have been far fewer opportunities for members of these two communities and others to explore these sources together as fellow seekers. What do we share in common? Where do we differ? How might reading these texts through the lens of the “other” impact our understanding of life and our struggles at this time? What do we hear, for example, when listening to the black poet Drew Drake’s new lament “Searching My Rage,” which he wrote just days after the recent murders of George Floyd and other African Americans from police brutality? What do we see when looking at Debra Band’s illuminated painting of the pastoral landscape of Psalm 23? How might the words of Nina Simone’s psalm-like song “Come Ye,” performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock (above), inspire us with its repeated refrain of “Come ye of hope”?
“Searching My Rage” by Drake
Over the next 18 weeks, we will focus on one psalm a week, offering several different forms of commentary. In addition, we offer broader reflections on major themes in the Psalms or significant cultural creations inspired by these legendary texts. We will also host several live events with contributors to provide opportunities for greater interaction with them and others interested in this initiative. We are tremendously grateful to the more than 50 contributors who have lent their talents and skills to this project, particularly during such a difficult and precarious moment in human history.
We invite all who visit the PsalmSeason platform to consider taking three simple actions:
- Spend some quiet time reflecting on the biblical texts and the interpretations offered on our site. What are some key insights or questions that emerge for you?
- Share your insights and questions with at least one other person. Who might be a helpful companion on this journey? Who might benefit from such a conversation?
- Create your own commentary on the PsalmSeason materials you explore, be it in the form of poetry, music, dance, or drama. As you do so, ask yourself how this process might help you grow as an individual and contribute more deeply to a world in dire need of healing
To paraphrase Psalm 90: may the work of all those working for peace and justice, health and wholeness, be blessed.
Rabbi Or Rose is the Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Leadership & Learning at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. Rev. Paul Raustenbush is Senior Advisor to Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, IL.