The Book of Psalms’ Universal Message about Death and Mortality

November 30, 2020 | Atar Hadari
About the author: Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

Reflecting on the death of his own father, Atar Hadari considers three of the texts traditionally recited at Jewish funerals: the liturgical poem known as the “Justification of the Sentence over the Dead,” and Psalms 49 and 16. He includes as well his original translations of these prayers. On the first of these, he writes:

[This prayer] is quite simply a recitation of praises for the Lord and repeated declaration of how He could not possibly have gotten things wrong by taking your loved one away at just this juncture. The Talmud relates this prayer to Ḥaninah ben Tradion, a rabbi martyred by the Romans for teaching Jewish law in public in the 2nd century CE. All the stories [about Ḥaninah] revolve around the essential commandment of acknowledging that what is done to you is just, and the text includes the requisite statement you make upon hearing of a death: “Blessed be the true judge.”

This vision of the afterlife struggles with God’s implacable wrath and the arbitrariness of death, but affirms over and over that he is just, and closes with a comforting suggestion of the departed being seen to their own little bed in a hospital ward of sorts, finally home.

The Psalms express some greater difficulty with this whole state of affairs.

Representative of this attitude is Psalm 49, a meditation on death itself that includes such troubling verses as “Like sheep to the underworld they amble—death will herd them/ And honest angels will beat them each morning, their form in the wastes of hell will fester.”

This is one of the hardest psalms in the entire book to understand, including some lines that no Jewish commentators gloss with any confidence, such as the beating from honest angels. It is of interest here as a prayer Jews recite that is not addressed to Jews but to all who live on the earth, its metaphysical struggles applying to anyone who worships or even does not worship—as much as anything it is a prayer addressed to those who worship mammon and wonder at the injustice of the wicked rich around them. Or as Rabbi David Kimḥi, the medieval Hebrew grammarian and author of the first complete commentary on Psalms, wrote, “This song is about the business of this world and the world to come, therefore it [begins by apostrophizing] ‘all the nations and all who dwell in the world,’ all who want the good way, from whatever nation they may be.”

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