It’s been a month since tragedy hit Japan and over 25’000 men, women and children died, many of them swept away by the terrible waves of the tsunami. 150’000 are still homeless, living in temporary shelters. Many more are probably living with friends and relatives, so that the actual number of homeless may be much higher.
While we cannot possibly make sense of out such a human tragedy, it does (or should!) evoke in us a feeling of human brotherhood, shared suffering, a tremendous sadness that so many of G”d’s creatures, each endowed — as all humans are — with a spark of G”d-likeness, were so tragically lost (cf. the aggadeta in Megilla 10b, where G”d rebukes he angels at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, where the Egyptian army perished, saying “My creatures are drowning in the sea …”). It also evokes in us our very own human frailty. In the words of the author of the High Holiday liturgical poem Untane Toqef, man bears resemblance to:
… the broken shard, like dry grass, a wilted bloom, a passing shadow, a disappearing cloud, the blowing wind, the whirling dust, the fleeting dream.
And despite our frailty, we, humans, are called upon to better the world, and Israel has a particular responsibility to lead by example and construct a just, loving and spiritual society.
When faced with massive but distant tragedies such as these, one must of course ask what it is one wants to achieve.
What such a situation calls for, is, first and foremost, an emotional study of those who were facing their deaths, and of those who, while they survived, saw their homes and often their friends and relatives, too, swept away under the terrible waves. Beyond that, the sought after texts should give strength to those who survived but became bereft and destitute, and should allow those far away to explore the religious questions and needs of the survivors.
So what texts may be fitting meditations on those themes of human frailty? Which texts may give us strength in the face of the fear of death? I want to suggest the following psalms.
I find psalms 16, 23, 90, 91 and 121 quite appropriate. In Psalm 16, the worshiper is afflicted, dearly afflicted, and yet draws strength from his understanding that despite his affliction, God will not let his soul enter Sheol. In other words, Life still makes sense after the tragedy, and throughout, the worshiper draws strength from feeling that despite his misfortune, God does care about him. Psalm 23 echoes a very similar theme. Even in the shadow, i.e. in the face of death, the worshiper recognizes God’s guidance. Neither of these two psalms paint a rosy picture of life. In Psalm 23, there are redeeming moments, such as when God prepares for the worshiper a metaphorical festive table, where his guidance by Divine Providence becomes evident to all, but there is no implication that his suffering was not real or that it was necessarily over; may be, may be not.
Psalm 90 is a meditation on the frailty of human life, a very apt meditation when considering the thousands who, in a moment, were ripped away from their friends and family, many of whom won’t even ever be properly buried, as they were swallowed by the raging sea.
Psalms 91 and 121 are meditations on the insecurities and dangers of life, and that throughout those vicissitudes, the worshiper seeks God guidance and ultimately trusts Him.
Each of these psalms are fitting texts in and of themselves. They can also be combined, preceded by Psalm 88, which is a lament of a dying person. As is evident from the twin psalms 88 and 89, the sick, dying person of Psalm 88 is really a metaphor, for the Nation of Israel, but it does nonetheless no violence to the text to reuse it in this context, as it major features are still respected even when applied to other people’s national suffering.
Some have suggested Psalm 46, which makes explicit mention of quaking mountains and raging seas, but I feel that it is not appropriate in this situation, as its all over message, which permeates the entire text of that psalm, is more appropriate for other occasions, as I explain in a forthcoming paper.