Ps. 23: Why I Wrote PsalmSongs

Gaya Aranoff Bernstein is a professor of pediatric endocrinology who has been on the faculty of Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons for over 30 years. She lives and works in New York City. Psalmsongs, A Gathering of Psalms (An Arthur Kurzweil Book, New York/Jerusalem, 2013) is her first book of poetry.

I wrote Psalmsongs during a time in my life when the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehillim) was all I could read. I sat in waiting rooms while procedures and imaging and surgeries were taking place, and I read psalms. I felt for those around me, also waiting, with nothing but magazines to occupy their thoughts. King David’s psalms expressed my own deepest emotions during that difficult time. On a given day this could include terror, joy, hope, and despair. These feelings were all held together by a belief in a Creator I cannot fathom. I tried to make each psalm relevant to my torment. The psalmist’s faith in the power of prayer was mine; his enemies, metaphors for evil, were impotent against the Almighty. I found comfort in the psalms, with their raw and unflinching depictions of the human condition, and their intimate, first-person conversations with an inconceivable God.  

Psalm 23 is widely known for its soothing, almost hypnotic reassurance. But psalm 91 was one I kept going back to that year; it’s beautiful concluding Hebrew verses had a surreal, calming effect on me. One day, while in a waiting room, I took out a pen, found a piece of paper, and tried to express it as a poem in English. Slowly, over the next few years, each of the 150 psalms of Tehillim became the poems of Psalmsongs—psalms expressed through the prism of my soul, interpretations rather than translations. In retrospect, I think I was trying to share the gift of psalms, trying to make Tehillim accessible to those who could not read them in Hebrew, or could not relate to the sometimes cumbersome, word-for-word English translations.

Today, in the era of COVID-19, social unrest, and economic insecurity, the psalms remain current, though they were composed millennia ago. We are going through an unprecedented time, with challenges of epic proportions. But we are not the first to experience epic challenges. We are not the first to be tested, to question faith, to err, to fall, to rise, to be relieved, or to thank God. Enemies—internal and external—still plague us, hope still sustains us. One does not have to be religious to try to make some sense of it all. There is comfort to be found in knowing that our modern questions are ancient questions, and that our common humanity can lead us to seek answers from the Creator.

Psalm 23

You lead  I'll follow

and lack nothing

cushion my falls

softly I'll land in

verdant fields

in calm water

soothe my soul

immerse me in justice

and truth and

in You

 

leaning on You

I have no fear

I tread lightly

through valleys

and shadows

and nightmares and terror

of doomsday and

death

 

Your bounty sustains me

I drink my fill

my thirst is quenched

And I empowered

by your master plan

can face whatever

comes my way

and live my days

in peace 

Gaya Aranoff Bernstein, PsalmSongs: A Gathering of Psalms, p. 23

 

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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.