Ps. 121: Sonata for Psalm 121

Maya Bernstein is a co-founder of the Certificate in Facilitation program at Georgetown University's Institute for Transformational Leadership; she is also on faculty at Yeshivat Maharat, a women's rabbinical school, and the Masa Leadership Center, a global leadership training program. She is currently at work on her first collection of poetry.

These verses echoed through my head as I navigated the experience of chemotherapy. I wanted to explore the hope of faith, the hope for salvation, even in the face of feelings of hopelessness. At first the poem was a series of “translations” of these verses. Then the structure of a Sonata, in which a melody is introduced and then explored from its various moods and angles, core words and themes turned, overturned, returned to, struck me as a relevant container for this exploration, and for the experience of the vicissitudes of faith, too. 

The Hebrew word “esah” means both to lift up and to carry.

The Hebrew word “ayin” means both “eye” and “nothingness” (or “no-thing,” mystical ephemerality).

The Hebrew term “tohu va’vohu” is the expression used in the beginning of the Book of Genesis to describe the state of the world before it was created.


Sonata for Psalm 121

I lift mine eyes to the mountains – from whence comes my salvation?

My salvation comes from the Lord, creator of Heaven and Earth.



I lift mine eyes,

But they are lashless.

Are they my eyes?



I carry my eyes up the mountain

They contain my salvation,

Yet they cannot see the Lord, the Heavens, or even the Earth.


I accompany myself on the journey

Towards the mountain. It is so heavy.

I am searching for my place. I am lost on this Earth, and can’t see Heaven.


When others gaze into my eyes they see mountains.

I see the reflection of mountains.

Salvation hovers between us, as Heaven hovers over Earth.


I carry mountains on my back, my eyes downcast.

My salvation is somewhere in the dust beneath my feet.

A strong wind blows earth into my eyes.


My eyes water with tears of salvation

As I face the shadowed mountain.

Step by step I climb, a Sisyphus, striving Heaven-ward.


When I summit the mountain I will lift my eyes at last.

Who might help me now that I’ve climbed so far?

The silence echoes off the cliffs of Heaven and Earth.


I bury myself in the soft sands of the mountain.

Maybe here I can find salvation, maybe here 

The eyes of the all-seeing Creator of Heaven and Earth will pass over me.



I lift mine (lashless) eyes

To the mountains in my mind 

Of the places I once lived -


Gilboa, Gamla, the Judean Hills;

Mount Tam, Diablo, Loma Prieta;

Svyataya Hara, Schwartzwald, Voronya.


From these memories of mountains I am comforted; the comfort contains no salvation.


I strive to lift my reddened eyes,

But they are bare and exposed,

They tear and overflow.


From Ayin, the eye of nothingness, comes my salvation.


My eyes are camouflaged in a desert wind

Suffused with sand.

I become a breathing mountain as the storm overwhelms me.


Heaven and Earth return to Tohu Va’Vohu; they are uncreated.


I lift mine eyes to the mountains.

From what space of negation will my salvation come?

I am erased to make space.


The Lord of Heaven and Earth blows about me. 

Perhaps now there is a vacant corner She can occupy.

I carry my mountains in my eyes.

My strength comes from all I’ve unlearned.

My strength, from the possibility of re-creating Heaven and Earth.



If I were to encounter a mountain, might I lift mine eyes?

If I were to lift mine eyes to the mountains, would I find salvation?

If I lift mine eyes, and there are no mountains, does this mean there is no salvation?

If I forget to ask from whence my salvation will come, will it never come?

If I were to be sure of the existence of a Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth, would I assume this Lord lived on a mountain? Perhaps She would dwell at the bottom of the sea.

If the Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth, lowered Her eyes from the mountains, would She see me gazing up at Her?

If there is a Lord, but She did not create Heaven and Earth, then what of salvation?

If I climb the mountain and never once lift mine eyes, does it count?

If I cannot see, but am surrounded by mountains, then what?

If I forget Thee will I be forgotten?

Will I forget myself?



I dare to lift mine eyes. I am aware that there are mountains. The wind blows hard and I stand still and whisper questions. The uncertain confidence that there is something in me confirms there is also something beyond me, let’s call it Lord,

let’s attach it to Heaven and Earth.

Something in this experience connects somehow to salvation.

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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.