Using the Enemy as a Proxy
The final verse in Psalm 137 is certainly one of the most difficult verses in the Bible, to my mind. Even so, a careful look at the Psalm in its entirety exposes a larger perspective which makes the distressing ethical problems of this verse a little less burdensome. Let me begin with the words of Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985)—best known for his scholarship on the Cairo Genizah documents—early in his life, when he concentrated on biblical scholarship. In Iyunim be-Mikra, penned shortly after the Holocaust, he says:
אין אנו זקוקים היום לפירוש על מזמור קלז. כל אחד מאתנו חזה פירוש זה מבשרו. היו זמנים שאוהבי תנ”ך היו מצטערים צער צורב על שדברי נקם כה אכזריים נכללו בו. מפורסמת היא אמרתו של הפרופ’ ישראל פרידלנדר ז”ל, איש מדע מצוין ואוהב ציון נלהב שהקריב את חייו למען עמו:
In our times, we don’t need an explanation for Psalm 137. Each of us experienced the meaning of this psalm in the flesh. There were times, though, when lovers of Bible were exceedingly pained that words of vengeance so cruel had been included in it. The statement of Professor Yisrael Friedlander (1876-1920), z”l — a serious scholar and an ardent lover of Zion who sacrificed his life for his people — is famous:
”הייתי נותן שתיחתך זרועי הימנית לו היה ניתן לי מקודם למחוק מן התנ”ך את הפסוק האחרון במזמור קל”ז.“
“I would have given you my right arm if only you would have allowed me to erase the last verse of Psalm 137 from the Bible.”
גם אנחנו כיום, מצטערים שהיה אפשר שמשורר בעל הרגשה פיוטית כה נעלה כמחבר מזמור קל”ז הוכרח להוציא מפיו מילים כה איומות. ואולם תחושתנו ההיסטורית נשתנתה לאור האירועים הנוראים שראו עינינו… דברי מזמור קל”ז אינם אלא תגובה למה שראה המשורר בעיניו. אנו מבינים לכעסו האלוהי של המשורר על בת בבל.
Today we are also pained that a composer with such exquisite poetic sensitivity as the author of Psalm 137 felt the need to express himself with such awful words. Nevertheless, our feelings about history have changed in light of the terrible events that our eyes witnessed… The words of Psalm 137 are merely a response to what the psalmist saw with his own eyes. We can understand the depth of the psalmist’s hatred for the people of Babylon.
The psalm as a whole, with its poignant descriptions of suffering and yearning, is, in my estimation, the pinnacle of poetic writing of the Judahite exiles, who sat and cried on the banks of the Rivers of Babylon, remembering Zion. They say (v. 4), “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” Yet, in a sad irony, they have left us one of the most powerful poetic expressions about their longing for Jerusalem (v. 5), “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither.”
When we read the opening of the psalm, with its dejected yet delicate spirit, we don’t yet understand the real reason for the difficulty of singing a song to God on foreign soil. We have the impression as if the exile and captivity itself created the writer’s block stopping the song writers.
Only, when we arrive at the final verses of the psalm, the true reason, in all its appalling truth, is exposed before us. The glowing picture of the beginning of the psalm is exchanged for the horrendous one at the end.
The Psalmist does not say explicitly what happened to the Judahites; but he hints at it with his wish that the perpetrators be “repaid in kind.” Unable, psychologically, to express what happened to our infants, he chooses to tell us by way of a prayer for vengeance—which, to be accurate, someone else is meant to accomplish—described as a tit-for-tat that Babylon will have to pay.
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February 28, 2015
September 23, 2019
Rabbi Yehudah Gilad is a Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa and the rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi. He has semicha from the chief rabbinate of Israel and a teaching certificate from Herzog College. Rabbi Gilad was one of the founders of the Memad party and served in the Knesset.
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