There is a Jewish custom of reciting Psalms during times of illness and distress. Some people find the recitation, rhythmic and lyrical, to be comforting in Hebrew, even if they don’t understand the words. Others read the Psalms in English, and for that there are various translations and commentaries to lift up the power of those ancient words of prayer. Others find comfort from the inspiration within songs and chants of selections from certain Psalms. I recall singing the23rd Psalm repeatedly during my mother’s illness before her death. “My cup overflows,” I chanted, and felt relief from my pain.

My family had a rough year in 2009, with the untimely and tragic passing, first of my husband’s sister of pancreatic cancer, and then of my own brother of a heart attack. Their deaths were less than six months apart. Missy had just turned 55, Hal was 53. We have had too much need for recitation of Psalms for healing. Nevertheless, I am grateful for having had inheritance of my ancestors’ words during these trying times. At moments both planned and spontaneous, the ancient words of Psalms have soothed and revived me.

There are times when it feels necessary and important to analyze the theology of the Psalms, wrestling with the meaning of suffering and God’s role. How could these tragedies happen? How could such terrible things happen in our world? Sometimes there are just no answers; the only place to go is to seek comfort and healing. In those moments, the timeless sentiments of our ancient text bring our hearts light in the darkness.

Last week our family stood at the grave of my sister-in-law to dedicate the headstone. It was very jarring and painful to see her name on the marker. It’s been about 11 months, but this visible sign of her absence made it real in a more stark way. It was a sad gathering on very cold and blustery February morning. Huddled together for warmth and comfort during the brief unveiling ceremony, there was something equally as shared as it was individual. Each person had his/her own grief. I shivered and tried to stem the faucet coming from my nose, and then looked up beyond the grave to the sky. It was a crystal clear sharp blue. In that moment, I felt the words of Psalm 121 come to my throat: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the UNSEEN ONE, maker of heaven and earth.” אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי. עזרי מעם ה” עושה שמים וארץ

I was overcome with a feeling of calm and warmth. In kinship with all who have experienced loss, all who shared words of comfort, all who have recited the ancient words of Psalms, I was reminded that life, fragile as it is, is still a sacred gift. In honor of the memory of our beloved family members whom we have lost, we are renewed in our purpose to live meaningfully. That exquisite blue sky is a reminder of beauty of life and a reminder to hold it close and cherish it.

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