Taking History Personally

January 1, 2024

In verse 5 of Psalm 137, the psalmist declares that he would lose his strength should he ever forget Jerusalem. Now, in verse 6, he says that he will lose the ability to express himself as well. In fulfillment of the sentiment of this verse, numerous Jewish customs and practices ensure that Jerusalem will never be forgotten. For example, Jews have a practice of leaving a portion of their homes unfinished as a reminder of Jerusalem.

Remembering Jerusalem all day, every day

When Jews pray three times each day, morning, afternoon, and evening, the liturgy includes this paragraph:

May You return to Jerusalem with mercy and may You rest within it, as you have spoken. May You rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal edifice, and may You soon establish the throne of David within it. Blessed are You Lord, builder of Jerusalem.

After every meal, the grace after meals includes this line:

Rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, soon in our days. Blessed are You Lord, builder of Jerusalem.

The life of a Jew is filled with reminders of Jerusalem throughout the day, every day. This has been the case for thousands of years. Simply put, to live a Jewish life is to never forget Jerusalem.

Remembering Jerusalem at every wedding

Among the many Jewish customs that remind us of Jerusalem, one is based directly on our verse. The Talmud, the encyclopedic compendium of rabbinic legal teachings compiled more than 1500 years ago, records it as follows:

What is the meaning of: “Above my foremost joy” (Psalms 137:6)? Rabbi Isaac says: This refers to the burnt ashes that are customarily placed on the head of bridegrooms at the time of their wedding celebrations, to remember the destruction of the Temple. – Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra, 60b

To this day, a small amount of ash is placed on the head of a Jewish groom just before the wedding ceremony. Then, during the ceremony, the future rebuilding of Jerusalem is explicitly mentioned in two separate blessings. The ceremony ends with the groom breaking a glass, symbolizing the destroyed state of Jerusalem that has not yet been fully rebuilt.

To outsiders, these customs may seem excessive and unfair to the bride and groom. After all, it is their wedding day. Why must we cloud their happiness with such dramatic reminders of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem? Aren’t the constant reminders in the daily prayers enough?

From plural to singular

To answer this question, let us return to the text of Psalm 137. Here is the full text of the Psalm with verses 5 and 6 in bold.

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat and also wept
When we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows in the midst of it. We hung our harps
3 For there our captors asked us for songs,
And our tormenters, mirth,
Saying, “Sing to us of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue cleave to my palate — If I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem
Above my foremost joy.

7 Remember, O Lord, the day of Jerusalem.
for the sons of Edom,
Who said, “Tear it down! Tear it down
To its very foundation!”

8 Thieving daughter of Babylon,
Happy is He who pays you back for what you did to us!
9 Happy is He who will seize and dash
Your infants against the rock!

Notice that through the first four verses, the psalm is written in the first-person plural. There we sat… We hung our harps… our captors… How can we sing… Then, in verse 5, the psalm switches to the singular. If I forget you… Let my tongue cleave… The final verses then revert to the plural (see v.8).

Switching from singular to plural or vice versa occurs throughout the book of Psalms. Psalms will frequently switch between singular and plural, between referring to God in the third person and addressing Him directly, and between tenses. These transitions are always important. They are always worthy of study.

What is the meaning of the transition from plural to singular in this psalm?

Personal and collective identities

Psalm 137 is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. The plural language of the opening verses makes sense. The destruction and exile were national events that befell the Jewish people as a collective.

Every person has multiple identities. I am Pesach Wolicki. I am a Jew. I am a husband. I am a father. I am an Israeli citizen. Some components of our identities are personal and private. Others are collective, such as citizenship. It is human nature to be primarily concerned with one’s private personal identity over one’s collective identity as a member of a nation or group. Every person’s highest priority is their own well-being and the well-being of their family. Personal happiness or sorrow tend to override collective reasons to mourn or rejoice.

To illustrate the point, imagine someone who was married on the same day as a national tragedy took place. Understandably, such a person would be rejoicing. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for such a person to restrain their happiness. At the same time, their happiness might be tainted by the national tragedy. Or it might not.

The degree to which their happiness is affected by the national tragedy is determined by two factors.

  1. How great is the tragedy?
  2. How much does this person identify with the collective?

If the tragedy is not great enough to override the joy of getting married, or the bride and groom do not identify strongly with their national identity, the happiness of the wedding will be unaffected.

Psalm 137 describes the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. These are grave national tragedies for the Jewish people. By switching from the first-person plural to the singular, the psalmist teaches us a powerful lesson. The destruction of Jerusalem is powerful enough to affect even our most personal joyous occasions. This is due both to the severity of the tragedy and the fact that we personally identify with our history. Had the psalm remained in the plural throughout, this message would have been lost.

By commemorating and remembering the destruction of Jerusalem at every wedding the way we do, the Jewish people continually remind themselves that our identity is national, historical, and collective. While every married couple is happy on their wedding day, they are reminded that they also share in the collective national hopes and dreams of Israel throughout history. Every marriage is a building block for the future of God’s kingdom on earth. Without Jerusalem and the Temple fully rebuilt, that kingdom is incomplete.

To fully participate in the building of God’s kingdom, we must take historical events personally. By personalizing historical events, we deepen our concern for the world and become more committed to doing our part to carry out God’s plan.

 

This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for ZionVerses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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