25 Tishrei 5782
“Tehillim changes us. And when we change, our world changes.” ~ Orly Wahba
I was that girl. The one who was always saying Tehillim, morning, noon, and night. I had typed a six-page list of names to daven for, and I always carried that list with me. People who needed prayers because of illness took up most of the space, though there were sections for those looking for their life partner, for people trying desperately to have children, looking for work so they could feed their families, trying to find a way to pray a child who had left Judaism back into the fold. While Tehillim wasn’t always easy for me to understand (certainly not in Hebrew, but even in English translation), I was taught that reciting Tehillim might change an evil decree and save lives. There were plenty of miracle stories, and I wanted to participate in changing lives for the good.
A couple of factors derailed my efforts. The first was being taught that one oughtn’t say Tehillim at night, as it might add power to the forces of darkness in the world. This frustrated me, because as a working mother of four rowdy lads, sometimes the only opportunity I had to recite “my” designated Psalms was at night after the boys were in bed. But to this deeply thoughtful rabbi’s credit, he met with another important rabbi in our community whose viewpoint might be different enough to give me the answer I was seeking. Unfortunately for me, the rabbis agreed. So, I stopped saying Tehillim at night.
The real killer, if you’ll pardon the dark word play, is that it seemed people only left my Refua Shelaima list one way: by dying. And I didn’t see many of the people for whom I recited Tehillim getting married, having babies, finding jobs, or bringing back their children to a religious lifestyle. There were people who could claim such successes, but I wasn’t among them. I finally concluded that reciting Tehillim on behalf of the sick, sad, lonely, or lost was someone else’s specialty. As time passed, my Tehillim book stayed on my shelf for longer and longer periods.
Three people or teams get starring role credit for bringing me back to the recitation of this magnificent poetry, and three other people get supporting role credit.
First, Rabbi Yitzchok Leib Bell wrote a very beautiful and accessible translation called Psalms That Speak to You: A Meaningful Interlinear Translation for Our Generation. I would not have heard of this book if it weren’t given to me as a gift by our daughter-in-law’s father, Nisan Jaffee. But the book sat on my shelf for a little longer…
Then, my dear Rebbetzin Bracha Goldberger of the Baltimore synagogue Tiferes Yisroel asked me to join a WhatsApp Tehillim group saying prayers for a man in the community who had been seriously injured in a terrible car accident. The rebbetzin required no “set” chapters to be recited within the day, as in my past experience; rather, one could simply pick up where the last reciter had stopped and say as many or as few chapters as she chose. I explained to her that I had my issues with the curative power of Tehillim, but that if this didn’t disqualify me, I could be a team player. After that gentleman unfortunately passed away, the focus of the group was changed to people with COVID; and when the pandemic numbers seemed to be going down but there was war again in Israel, the focus changed to include safety for the soldiers and citizens of Israel and anyone in the greater Jewish family who needed prayer. The supporting cast member of this episode was Yehoshua Shalom ben Dovid Yirmiyahu, may his neshama have an aliyah.
As time went by, my thoughts about reciting Tehillim undertook a subtle but life-affirming shift. Through Rabbi Bell’s sensitive translation and my daily “conversations” with King David, I began to see Tehillim as a means of understanding depression in a world going mad, and as a means of connecting with my Creator to express gratitude. I love King David when he is beseeching God, wrestling with himself, with mankind, and as he questions God’s involvement with immediate challenges, yet reaching for God even when he is exhausted and feeling hunted and betrayed. I love him when he speaks with a certain hubris about his holiness, and when experience and God remind him to be humble. King David reminds me with his words that recitation is not – at least for me – about magically changing God’s decree and saving a life. It certainly is about being deeply mindful of others, about caring deeply for them and for their plight, and about expressing to God my deep yearning that He will care for the sick and others in need in a way they and I can perceive.
Finally, Orly Wahba and Naomi Journo created a new opportunity with #MyTehillimTime. I had been anxiously searching for a special kind of learning to make this Rosh Hashanah more meaningful, especially in the sea of lockdowns. My friend Emunah Murray sent me a notice that I otherwise would have missed, and I signed up for one of the most wisely constructed online learning programs I’ve ever encountered: roughly half an hour every evening for the holy weeks from before Rosh Hashanah through the middle of Cheshvan, different teachers each night, women teaching with all the power and faith and joy of our sex.
Download the Abraham's Legacy app!
I look forward to these nightly meetings with happy anticipation. I love the concept of the Abraham’s Legacy app and recommend it to everyone. Imagine! Saying Tehillim with everyone in mind who needs something with people all over the world, all trying their best to help other souls!
May all our efforts bring an aliyah to the neshama of Avraham ben Pauline, and much pride for the inspiring granddaughter with whom he gifted the world.