Reciting tehillim has become a part of my daily routine, particularly in the past two years. In the last few weeks, I have been part of a tehillim project of reciting tehillim for a refuah shleimah for my very dear friend, Ricky Dreyfuss. Tragically she was taken from us this week. It’s a terrible loss. The following is dedicated in memory of and for an ilui neshama for Rivka bas Tuvia and Chaya Miriam. My recitation and study of tehillim brings me to the following thoughts:
On the Tehillim Online site, they list all 150 psalms and each one is connected to a particular purpose, such as “For Protection Against Enemies,” “For Success on a Trip,” “For Wisdom,” etc. One such designation that I found almost shockingly ludicrous is the one for Psalm 137. It is listed as being designated “To Remove Hatred.” It’s the familiar psalm of “By the Waters of Babylon” which many recite prior to the Grace After Meals of weekdays.
The first verses of the psalm are very familiar to us. The Jews are being led into the Babylonian exile when their captors ask them, derisively no doubt, “Sing us a song of Zion.” The Jews’ rejoinder is “How can we sing Hashem’s song in an alien land?” They continue with the stunningly beautiful and timeless words, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.” So far, so good.
Then we turn to Hashem in the last three verses, and ask Him to recall and avenge our devastation and torment at the hand of our enemies; to one day send an enemy to Babylon that will do to Babylon, what Babylon did to us. We praise that future enemy for this recompense and, in the final verse chant, “Praise to him who will clutch and dash your infants against the rock!” I have always found this last verse to be extremely difficult for me to say. Visions of the terrible atrocities of the Nazis against Jews of all ages, including infants, are brought to mind. And this is the psalm that is designated for the purpose “To Remove Hatred!?”
Anger and hatred are powerful human emotions that can have very negative connotations. In the opening lines of Ramban’s Letter to His Son, he warns his child against anger.
“Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger, a serious character flaw which causes people to sin. As our Rabbis said (Nedarim 22a): “Whoever flares up in anger is subject to the discipline of Gehinnom as it is says in (Koheles 12:10), ‘Cast out anger from your heart, and [by doing this] remove evil from your flesh.’ …Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This radiant quality is the finest of all admirable traits (see Avodah Zarah 20b), (Mishlei 22:4), “Following humility comes the fear of Hashem.”
Yet, what can we do? It’s impossible not ever to feel anger or even hatred. It’s true in our personal lives when we experience great wrongs. When we are hurt or attacked. And, it is so in our national lives. As Jews who have been so harshly treated throughout our history, with devastating edicts, pogroms, expulsions, antisemitic acts, and even genocide, how can we not feel anger at this treatment and even hatred towards its perpetrators?
And there is also risk in repressing such strong emotions. In an article by Crystal Raypole on the Heathline website, she finds:
“,,, research has linked emotional repression to decreased immune system function. If your immune system doesn’t work properly, you might get sick more frequently and recover slowly. Repressed emotions can also factor into mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety, and depression.”
How then do we deal with these powerful feelings, especially in light of the very negative characterization as is expressed in Ramban’s Letter? We can certainly identify inappropriate ways of doing so. Angry outbursts or violent actions are undoubtedly wrong reactions. The relief they offer is momentary and, at least for ethically sensitive persons, would immediately change to feelings of guilt, remorse, or even shame.
Revenge, too, is reprehensible and forbidden by Torah law. Certainly, one can and should, on occasion, turn to courts of law when appropriate. However, personally inflicting acts of revenge, or even using words that are so motivated, are in violation of laws of Jewish ethical behavior.
However, Raypole suggests an alternative:
“While it may sound a little counterintuitive, learning to embrace those negative feelings can actually help improve emotional well-being over time.”
Perhaps that is a useful way of relating to the “troublesome” verse in Psalm 137. We do not look to personally avenge the wrongs done to us. The responsibility for that is placed in the hands of God. In the psalm we ask Him to “remember” us and the wrongs done to us. He will choose the manner in which to do so and the agents who will further His future plans. By envisioning those coming days of retribution and recompense, we express our anger and even hatred in a “safe” and even therapeutic way that may, indeed, ultimately help “To Remove Hatred.”
This is also possible when we are angry with God, Himself. There are times of loss, bereavement, and pain when, in our anguish, we find ourselves embittered against He who is in charge of the world. In an article entitled “Dealing with Pain and Anger at God” by Rabbi Asher Resnick, which relates Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichick’s approach to loss and mourning, he explores the Rav’s understanding of the period of aninut, the time from the death of the close relative until the interment.
During that period, the onen is exempt from performing any positive commandments. One practical reason given is that the living relative is too involved with the planning of the funeral arrangements and is consequently freed from mitzvot during that period. However, the Rav relates more to the pain, anguish, and even anger of the bereaved relative.
“The onen [one that has not yet buried his relative] is incapable of performing mitzvot. Judaism understands that bitterness, grief and confusion are noble emotions which should be assimilated and accepted by man, not rejected at the time of distress… Aninut represents the spontaneous human reaction to death. It is an outcry, a shout, or a howl…
I want the sufferer to act as a human being, G-d says. Let him not suppress his humanity in order to please Me. Let him tear his clothes in frustrating anger and [temporarily] stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.”
Rabbi Resnick adds:
“One may even speak harshly to G-d — many great Jews have done so all throughout Jewish history — if it is a part of an ongoing relationship with Him. Having this relationship is not only important, it is tremendously therapeutic.”
Yet, acting in this way towards God can result in feelings of guilt. If we believe that whatever God does is ultimately for the good, how can we be angry or “speak harshly” even if “many great Jews” have done so? I think that the key idea here is that the reaction is delimited and temporary. As Rabbi Resnick writes, the period of aninut is followed, upon internment, by aveilut and the bereaved is enjoined to move from “despair to intelligent sadness.”
In his book, The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“In the midst of crisis and bereavement, the fabric of meaning is torn apart and we feel strangers in an alien world. Yet a mood is not a truth: a feeling is not a fact.”
Sometimes catastrophic events in our lives may lead to feelings of anger, shock, and even hatred. Still, having feelings of anger at times does not make you an “angry” person. Nor does a temporary flare of hatred make you “hateful.” Acting on these feelings in an inappropriate way, however, might do so.
Ultimately, we have the responsibility to deal with these emotions, to soften and, ultimately, to transform them. However, to be human, and to remain healthily human, we may need to express these emotions safely in order to purge ourselves of them. Especially when faced with the mysterium tremendum of death, we find ourselves overwhelmed with tumultuous emotions of shock, pain and anger. And so, we express them, and ultimately tame them. We may, in the words of John Donne, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And perhaps, we can then gradually regain equilibrium, optimism, and faith.