PSALM 121:

A TRANSLATION WITH EXPOSITION

AND A RE-INTERPRETATION, PSALM 121F*

Barbara Ellison Rosenblit

 
PS. 121: TEXT AND EXPOSITION
Consider this psalm as if it were a question posed by a single confused soul, perhaps before a journey or battle. The answer is given by the individual and the chorus. I divide the psalm so that v.1 stands alone and poses the basic question. Vv. 2 and 3 are spoken by the individual as a response to the question. The entire community then recites verse 4 to reinforce and summarize the belief of the individual. Verses 5-7 continue the argument of the individual. And verse 8 is said in chorus (for balance). In this reading, we have a spokesperson, reinforced by the entire community which bolsters the faltering faith of the individual expressed in the question in v. 1.
Question:

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains

From where does my help come?

Reply:

2 My help comes from the Lord,

Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot give way

your guardian will not slumber

Chorus:

4 See! Neither slumbering nor sleeping

-- the Guardian of Israel [1]

Reply:

5 The Lord is your guardian [2]

The Lord protects [3] you at your right hand.

6 By day the sun will not strike at you

Nor the moon by night [4]

7 The Lord will guard you from all mishap [5]

He will guard your very being.[6]

Chorus:

8 The Lord will guard your going out and coming in

From this time forth and forevermore.

 

PS 121F: TEXT AND EXPOSITION

1 I am lifted by my Mother's embrace

Caressed by Her soft breasts.[7]

How will she comfort me?

2 Her womb protects me [8]

Nourishes me

She is my Maker.

3 She encourages my every step

She is always there.[9]

4 Mother! My cries rouse Her from sleep.

--She watches over me, [10]

5 stroking my hair with Her gentle hand [11]

when I need Her touch.

6 Her brightness lights my day

Her glow my night.[12]

7 Nothing can sever Her love for me.

My very being is in Her care.[13]

8 Mother weeps when I leave

Weeps for sadness at our parting

Weeps for joy at my journey

Mother waits,

Knowing I will return.[14]

 


[*] This appeared in abbreviated form in Kerem 5 (1997) 80-81.

[1] I prefer this word order, though it does not follow JPS, Soncino, or Artscroll, ( where we find "The guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps") because it maintains the order, and therefore emphasis, of the Hebrew poetic line. This view of God as ever-wakeful also presents a contrast to the god Baal, as Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal, as they shout from morning to night for their god to answer. "Shout louder," Elijah mocks... "perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.: (I Kings 18:22). It, however, also refutes the strong sentiment in psalm 44, in which the psalmist implores and chides, "Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?/ Awaken, do not reject us forever!...." The Zohar comments on these lines. In this mystical tradition from the 12th century, great attention is paid to these lines in the psalm by citing first and linking the passage from Song of Songs, "Flee, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young hart" (8:14). Here, the author says that the reference to gazelle implies this animal's characteristics of always looking back as it leaves, and of sleeping with one eye closed and one eye ever open, ever vigilant. So, Zohar comments, is our God as one who "neither slumbers nor sleeps". (Tishby, Vol. I, p.130). In a more graphic, and more fascinating, portrayal of God, He is without eyelids or brows, based on this line from Ps. 121. Here Israel in the upper realms is Tiferet; the protector/guardian, then, is Keter, guarding Tiferet from evil. (Tishby, Vol. 1 , p.358)

[2] Soncino uses the synonyms keeper/keep/ guard for shomer; I prefer the repetition of the word guard/guardian to be true to this poetic emphasis.

[3] Another use of tzel to represent God's protective shade is found in psalm 91, verse 1, "...and abidest in the shadow of the Almighty--b'tzel shaddai yitlonan. Another example of tzel as protective shadow is found in Ps. 23:4 . Here the word tzel-mavet is probably rooted in the Arabic homonym meaning "deepest darkness", but the unavoidable aural associations of tzel (shadow/shade) and mavet (death) in Hebrew led to an association with shadows and death, alternately translated as valley of the shadow of death (Soncino); valley overshadowed by death (Feuer).

[4] I ask myself of what harm the moon could possibly be, except by its absence, and wanted to give myself permission to insert the words "will be a guide for you through the darkness" to complete the thought that God is our Protector against and with the forces of nature. This line then would read that the sun will not hit/strike (makeh is a bodily blow in Hebrew; it is a violent word, both in meaning and sound) and the moon to reveal its light to light your way in the dark of night. However, this is contrary to the usual biblical style in which the verb in the first stich carries over to the verb-less second stich. An interesting interpretation of the harm that the moon can do is suggested in Soncino, where the interpreter(Cohen) points out the connection between moon (lune) and lunacy. Note too the references in Isaiah : ".. Hot wind and sun shall not strike them/For He who loves them shall lead them, For He will guide them to springs of water./ I will make all My mountains a road and My highways shall be built up....." (49:10-11)

[5] I chose mishap rather than evil (Artscroll, Soncino) or harm (JPS).

[6] This word--nefesh--can be translated as soul (Soncino, Artscroll). JPS prefers life to include both body and soul, perhaps. In biblical Hebrew, nefesh means "self" or "being". Later, with the hellenistic body/soul division, nefesh comes to designate the soul aspect of this duality of body and soul. I chose the Blumenthal translation of nefesh as "very being", since this idea links our body and soul; this language has a certain precision which implies our individual uniqueness--and deservedness--as well.

[7] There is much literary, artistic, and even psychoanalytical, precedent in imaging mountains or hills as breasts. God's name,Shaddai, a name invoking God's mightiness, is first mentioned in Genesis 17:1, where Plaut, in his Bible commentary, notes that some scholars derive the word Shaddai from the Akadian word for mountain. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary , p.116) . This name of God, often found on mezuzot (see footnote 14), is homophonically imaged in hills, because shad (or shaddaim, pl.) is the Hebrew word for breast(s), suggesting this visual/aural image connection to God's Name. In Zoharic terms, hills are supernal hills, the transit point through which Shechinah draws blessings down from Hesed to Yesod to transmit them to those waiting expectantly below, those who are "lifting up their eyes". (Tishby, Vol.I, p.434). So here I suggest mother's milk viewed as the flow of blessings from the supernal Mother-- Shechinah--to us below. These breasts, this nourishing milk, will bring the comfort asked for in the ensuing question.

[8] This image parallels "help" --ezri--in verse 2 of the original psalm. I chose this image of womb for several reasons: 1) Rechem (womb) is the root of Rachamim (mercy), which alludes to both the female qualities of nourishment (womb) and mercy, which gives additional texture to the concept of "help". 2) Rachamim is one of the 10 sefirot in the mystical tradition. Often identified as possessing a certain feminine quality, Rachamim, or Tiferet, serves as the pooling point for the channels connecting Hesed (grace) and Din (strict judgment). From the blending of these energies Mercy gains its balance. 3) God's Womb seems an apt symbol for the protection implied in this psalm; this Womb encompasses and nourishes us, surrounds us with vital, living waters.

[9] Think of this re-written psalm as recounting the stages of child development in relation to the Mother. In verse 1, we have the suckling baby; verse 3 describes the toddler, verse 4 the fearful child, verse 7 the adolescent child, and verse 8 the young adult. ( I will expand these ideas up as I proceed to these verses). In this interpretation, verse 3 then moves us from dependent infancy to the toddler seeking limited free movement. In this re-writing, however, God is not clearing the path of obstacles (121:3); rather this God motions us forward, guiding us to walk alone.

[10] The transformation of this verse is particularly pleasing to me. God here changes from the image of ever-vigilant Guardian to that of Mother whose shallow sleep is interrupted by the needs of her child. All mothers hear their babies' whimpers or most silent of stirrings when no one else can. Especially in the quiet of night, the peaceful breathing of her infant can lull a mother to sleep, from which the slightest noise will rouse her.

[11] This is a re-working of al yad yeminechah--at your right hand. Note in the parallel verse in 121, God is described with a noun (Guardian). Here, God touches, strokes. God draws close in this reworking, not a presence at your right hand, rather Her hand reaching out to comfort.

[12] Here God embodies comfort day and night rather than protection from the forces of nature. Note that I use the biblical style in which the verb in the first stich carries over to the verbless second stich.

[13] The eternality of maternal love which transcends action or deed seems appropriate to parallel verse 7 of Ps.121, in which the language takes a more fatherly posture of protection and responsibility ("guard you from mishap"; "guard your being") rather than unconditional love expressed here.

[14] This verse combines the ambivalence we feel when our children grow up and become independent, needing us less, and then, when they return, needing us differently. I try to express this ambivalence in the image of God as Mother, shedding tears of sorrow for the child's departure and the sense of not being needed, and (sometimes simultaneous) tears of joy, for the child's growing maturity and independence. The good parent lets go--in their child's going out, secure in their ultimate emotional-spiritual return, their coming in. Traditional commentaries cite several interpretations: leavetaking for a pilgrimage, to and from daily work to the studyhouse (Soncino, Feuer), return from exile, or entry into the World to Come (Feuer). From Zohar, I find some support for my interpretation of this passage as journey toward physical and spiritual growth. In this mystical 13th C. text, this line refers to Shechinah, (Shechinah is sometimes called Shomer Yisroel--Guardian/Protector of Israel--an apt image to connect it textually to Ps. 121) who stands at the celestial door of the sefirotic world. As the supernal Mezuzah, Shechinah's job is to protect the upper and lower worlds from the assault of sitra achra , just as the mezuzah in the lower world serves to protect those entering their homes from the evil lurking outside. (Tishby, Vol III, p.1188-89). Shechinah stands guard to enable the transmission of energies between the lower and upper spheres, yet another kind of journey--or transmission. In this re-writing, I suggest that the journey itself is worthy of joy, for good parents know that the journey, however nerve-wracking to watch from afar, is a critical rite of passage, which makes one deserve,-- indeed earn-- re-entry and re-turn. And when the child does return, Mother is waiting; Shechinah/Mezuzah is ever-vigilant at the entry way, secure in Her hope that we will be drawn back.

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