Ps. 126: A Jewish-Muslim Dialogue

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus and the founding Director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where she was ordained in 1982. She also holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctorate from Temple University. With support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Nancy has pioneered innovative community-based learning opportunities for rabbinical students and their peers of other faiths. Her projects include: Dialogue Retreats for Emerging Muslim and Jewish Leaders; Cultivating Character: A Conversation across Communities; and Campus Chaplaincy for a Multifaith World.

Dr. Celene Ibrahim is currently a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School. She previously served as the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University (2014–2019) and as Islamic Studies Scholar-in-Residence at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School (2014–2017). Dr. Ibrahim holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations and a master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and a bachelor's degree in Near Eastern Studies with highest honors from Princeton University. She is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur'an and the editor of One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets an anthology exploring interreligious engagement as a way to overcome anti-Muslim prejudice.

 

Celene – Hello, dear sister, kayfa hāliki? How are you? How is your heart during this strange summer? How has Psalm 126 spoken to you in this time?

Nancy – This has been a challenging summer for me. One of the gifts of this difficult time has been the opportunity to go deeper into familiar texts. Summer for me used to mean travel: adventures that brought me new sights, sounds, tastes. This summer, sheltering in place with little novel input each day, I find myself awash in memories. Images spark recollections, as do melodies or even distinctive tastes. Words also evoke memories, especially words I repeat often in prayer. As I chant Psalm 126, a psalm I have sung at many Shabbat tables over half a century, a single Hebrew word will stand out, trailing in its wake a story, one especially strong in the moment. These days, the word afikim calls me.

Afikim, translated in English as streams, is the Hebrew equivalent of the Arabic word wadi. The psalm describes a joyous time of fulfillment of dreams. The psalmist compares that time to “afikim in the Negev.” When I first learned to chant that phrase, I had no idea what a stream in a desert looked like. Then I saw afikim in the Negev! They are, most of the time, dry, rocky beds, devoid of life. On occasions, often unpredictable, a huge rainstorm will fill the empty bed and it will promptly overflow—gushing water, like a mouth suddenly filled with laughter and joy after much pain. During these difficult days, it is good to sing at the table each Shabbat, to remember that the longed-for redemption may follow a very dry spell.

When my brother-in-law Shuki died in his thirties, they buried him on the kibbutz where he was born and raised, Kibbutz Afikim. His parents had come from Russia to found that settlement, naming it Afikim after the psalmist’s vision of a return to the Land. At the burial, Shuki’s three-year-old son stood by his mother’s side, holding her hand. He said to her, consolingly, “Abba won’t be dead forever.” When I sing the word afikim, I see my sister-in-law and her son standing at the grave. What seems utterly bleak, will not be forever.

Celene – My heart grieves to hear of this loss in your family. Thank you for sharing that arresting image. A few months ago, I visited the edge of the Negev by the Dead Sea, a truly special place and one where time seems to move a little more slowly. I remember being deeply aware of the present moment as one tiny speck in the unfolding of geological time and the passing of human civilizations. Sometimes life gives us a seemingly desolate desert and waters that cannot sustain life. But human beings, with providential succor, we might say, have a way of making “a way out of no way.” This African American adage is what the Psalmist evokes for me. I remember taking in the occasional scraggly shrub around the shores of the Dead Sea, beautified by the hazy pastels of the sky. Even in the lowest of points, around the saltiest of seas, there was life finding a way through the cracks. What losses we sustain, how resilient we must be. Yet, as the Psalm points out, times of bounty follow the weeping. The resonances are not lost on a student of the Qur’an: “For truly with hardship comes ease! / Truly with hardship comes ease!” (Q 94:5–6) After those famous words of assurance, the subsequent ayāt provide instruction: “So when you are free, exert yourself; / and let your desire be for your Lord.” (Q 94:7–8). It is in this turning toward the Provider that the heart finds rest and the promise of eternal joy.

Nancy – Yes. This psalm is all about joy. One of the several nuanced Hebrew words for joy—rena—appears twice in this psalm. Each time I sing it, it reminds me of my friend Vivie’s consoling me after my mother died. Like many mothers and daughters, our relationship had its share of anger braided in with the love. Vivie counseled me to recall the words in Psalm 30 “[God’s] anger lasts for a moment, [God’s] favor for a lifetime.” I carried that phrase—anger for a moment, favor for a lifetime—with me as a mantra for weeks before I noticed that it was the first half of a verse; the second half B’erev Yalin bechi, u’v’boker rena, gorgeously translated in the King James as “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Rena is that particular joy that comes after a night of weeping, when one recalls that favor is forever. I hear the word rena, and that solace comes rushing back, like a flash rainstorm in a wadi!

Celene – May your mother’s memory be blessed. Braiding of complicated emotions and emotional torrents are such hallmarks of human experience! In thinking about this psalm, and in particular the concept of rena, I am reminded of the Arabic word falāh (breathy “h” sound). The word means “tiller” or “cultivator” and is used to refer to farmers, but in the Islamic context—in the call to prayer (al-adhān), for instance—the word comes to signify “thriving,” “prosperity,” “success,” and “salvation”. Two lines of the call say: “Hasten to prayer! Hasten to success!” (Hayya ‘ala al-salāh! Hayya ‘ala al-falāh!)  Falāh is the kind of thriving that comes after the struggle. On the spiritual level, this word evokes the process of tilling the heart, intellect, and character to reap the harvest of a life well-lived, in sha’ Allah, G-d willing! The torrents in the wadis can be violent and destructive, but they make possible the irrigation of otherwise arid land. They enable cultivation.  

Each time an opportunity to read the Psalms arises, the words strike me anew with their poignant beauty and the richness of their many metaphors. For me, the weeks of sheltering in place afforded an opportunity to reconnect with a Jewish havruta partner who is also an Arabic-learner. We alternated between Psalms and similarly themed Qur’anic ayāt in their respective languages. New meanings opened up for both of us, meanings that we might not stumble upon when reading alone or in translation. The Qur’an describes the Psalms (zabūr) as being given by God to the Prophet David (Dāwūd) (Q 4:163 and 17:55), and the Psalms hold a special place in Muslim sacred history—alongside the Torah, Gospels, and the revelations given to other prophets. That we together continue to find solace and resonate with their words and after the passing of nearly three millennia, is a testament to their life-giving nature. We need this spiritual irrigation, particularly in these times of pandemic and reckoning with racial justice. We need hope and the potential for thriving in the wake of the long struggle.   

Nancy – Indeed, we do. I find that hope during these days in the Psalms and in the joy-filled and loving friendship of sisters like you. Hazak v’amatz—Be strong and of good courage!

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.