‘Is there a more dread-filled psalm than Psalm 88?’ Finding meaning in the trauma of this moment

Is there a more dread-filled psalm than Psalm 88? In this relatively little-known work, the Bible manages to capture perfectly the isolation and misery of those whose lives are upended by illness. In our current coronavirus crisis the ancient words take on new resonance.

If you’ve been suffering with COVID-19 or are terrified for a loved one, you will not need any help walking through this literary valley of darkness. But if you’ve been trying to shield yourself from the numbers, or protect your ability to sleep by turning off the agonizing testimony of doctors and nurses on TV each night, consider opening your heart to the emotional reality portrayed by this psalm.

It is, indeed, worse at night, when our distractions and illusions vanish, and the grim truths set in.

O LORD, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You,
let my prayer reach You; incline Your ear to my cry.
For I am sated with misfortune; I am at the brink of Sheol/the abode of death.

Mass graves on Hart Island, refrigerated morgue trucks outside hospitals, nursing homes decimated, communities of color laid low, medical and other essential workers dreading each day of work. Death seems everywhere.

I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit; I am helpless,
abandoned among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave,
of whom You are mindful no more, and who are cut off from Your care.

What hurts most deeply is the forced isolation, the knowledge that others will need to stay away from us if we are sick, the ultimate terror of dying alone.

You distanced my companions from me; You make me abhorrent to them;
I am shut in and do not go out.
My eyes pine away from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, each day;
I stretch out my hands to You.

After all, God, is there a point to all this death? We are affronted by its heavy hand.

Do You work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise to praise You? Selah.
Is Your compassion recounted in the grave, Your constancy in the place of perdition?

After fitful sleep comes morning… bringing not joy but the jolting recognition once more of the new reality that we are living in.

As for me, I cry out to You, O LORD; each morning my prayer greets You.
Why, O LORD, do You reject me, do You hide Your face from me?

Intellectually, we might dismiss the idea that illness is a punishment from God. But somehow, under pressure, that ancient explanation can still slip through our defenses. Or perhaps we experience this pandemic as the entire world — God’s self — turning against us:

Your fury overwhelms me; Your terrors destroy me.
They swirl about me like water all day long; they encircle me on every side.

Unlike most psalms, which conclude by turning back to God as source of salvation, Psalm 88 knows no such consolation — not from God, not from human contact that brings comfort and caring. The psalm ends abruptly on the stark note of physical distancing:

You have put friend and neighbor far from me and my companions out of my sight.

We have plenty of other psalms to help us move into affirmation (including the first two lines of Psalm 89). But the depth of emotion that Psalm 88 evokes can be a useful tonic, especially when we are busy pushing away the full impact of what is going on outside the confines of our homes. Oh, God, that is what it’s really like, isn’t it.

I invite you not to hurry by, not to distance yourself just yet, but to stay in the discomfort, the anguish and dread, in the company of the ancient psalmist and so many contemporary sufferers, for just a few minutes longer. Here is the complete psalm; let’s allow these thousands-of-years-old words to speak the truth of the COVID-19 experience.

Psalm 88

O LORD, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You,
let my prayer reach You; incline Your ear to my cry.
For I am sated with misfortune; I am at the brink of Sheol.
I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit; I am helpless,
abandoned among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave,
of whom You are mindful no more and who are cut off from Your care.
You have put me at the bottom of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths.
Your fury lies heavy upon me; You afflict me with all Your breakers. Selah.
You distanced my companions from me; You make me abhorrent to them;
I am shut in and do not go out.
My eyes pine away from affliction; I call to You, O LORD, each day; I stretch out my hands to You.
Do You work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise to praise You? Selah.
Is Your faithful care recounted in the grave, Your constancy in the place of perdition?
Are Your wonders made known in the netherworld, Your beneficent deeds in the land of oblivion?
As for me, I cry out to You, O LORD; each morning my prayer greets You.
Why, O LORD, do You reject me, do You hide Your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and near death; I suffer Your terrors wherever I turn.
Your fury overwhelms me; Your terrors destroy me.
They swirl about me like water all day long; they encircle me on every side.
You have put friend and neighbor far from me and my companions out of my sight.

(Translation based on Sefaria)

Gilah Langner serves as the rabbi of Kol Ami congregation in Arlington Va. and Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase, Md.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

‘Is there a more dread-filled psalm than Psalm 88?’ Finding meaning in the trauma of this moment

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