In his new book, "Healing Psalms," Rabbi Joshua Haberman explains the meaning of each of the psalms, and offers suggestions for how to use these psalms for help during life's most difficult moments. These excerpts focus on psalms about illness, healing, and preparing for death.

Excerpted from "Healing Psalms" by Joshua Haberman (May 2003, $24.95, Cloth) by permission of Wiley.

Psalm 6

For the Leader; with string-music; on the Sheminith. A Psalm of David.

O HaShem, rebuke me not in Thine anger, neither chasten me in Thy wrath.
Be gracious unto me, O HaShem, for I languish away; heal me, O HaShem, for my bones are affrighted.
My soul also is sore affrighted; and Thou, O HaShem, how long?

Return, O HaShem, deliver my soul; save me for Thy mercy's sake.
For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in the nether-world who will give Thee thanks?
I am weary with my groaning; every night make I my bed to swim; I melt away my couch with my tears.
Mine eye is dimmed because of vexation; it waxeth old because of all mine adversaries.

Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for HaShem hath heard the voice of my weeping.
HaShem hath heard my supplication; HaShem receiveth my prayer.
All mine enemies shall be ashamed and sore affrighted; they shall turn back, they shall be ashamed suddenly.

"I Soak My Bed with Tears"
You feel you are falling apart. You are sick. You are wasting away. You are terrified. How much longer must you suffer? You cry your eyes out. On top of it, enemies are gloating over your misery. Don't be ashamed to cry out for God's help. There is comfort in the thought that God does not want the death of His believers: "For in death there is no rememberance of You; who will offer You thanks in the netherworld?" (v. 6).

The psalmist speaks as a witness to the power of prayer. He remembers a time of despair: "Every night I soak my bed with tears" (v. 7). When things turned around, he was certain that it was God's response to his cry for help: "The Lord has accepted my prayer" (v. 10).

Reflection: God Heals
When illness of misfortune strikes, we wonder, What have we done to deserve this? Is it punishment for some offense? Is God angry at us?

If our suffering is indeed an affliction decreed by God, then recovery may be taken as a sign of God's forgiveness, compassion, and love. If God metes out punishment at times, He also forgives the repentant sinner.

Could God have created life without evil and made us immune against suffering? We have no answer, but we may believe that for every affliction there is a remedy. If in some way God exposes us to suffering, He is also our healer. The hand that wounds is the hand that heals.

Psalm 38
A Psalm of David, to make memorial.

O HaShem, rebuke me not in Thine anger; neither chasten me in Thy wrath.
For Thine arrows are gone deep into me, and Thy hand is come down upon me.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine indignation; neither is there any health in my bones because of my sin.
For mine iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
My wounds are noisome, they fester, because of my foolishness.
I am bent and bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day.
For my loins are filled with burning; and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am benumbed and sore crushed; I groan by reason of the moaning of my heart.

Lord, all my desire is before Thee; and my sighing is not hid from Thee.
My heart fluttereth, my strength faileth me; as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me.
My friends and my companions stand aloof from my plague; and my kinsmen stand afar off.

They also that seek after my life lay snares for me; and they that seek my hurt speak crafty devices, and utter deceits all the day.
But I am as a deaf man, I hear not; and I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.
Yea, I am become as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth are no arguments.
For in Thee, O HaShem, do I hope; Thou wilt answer, O Lord my G-d.
For I said: 'Lest they rejoice over me; when my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me.'

For I am ready to halt, and my pain is continually before me.
For I do declare mine iniquity; I am full of care because of my sin.
But mine enemies are strong in health; and they that hate me wrongfully are multiplied.
They also that repay evil for good are adversaries unto me, because I follow the thing that is good.
Forsake me not, O Lord; O my G-d, be not far from me.
Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

The Trial of Illness
Illness may change your whole view of life, you attitude toward others, and your self-image. The author of Psalm 38 is afflicted by grave illness and like all persons so stricken wonders, Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong? This is a question that torments many sufferers. Is illness really punishment for wrongdoing? You may not think so, but the psalmist is sure that he is paying the penalty for his sins. His suffering prompts him to a critical review of his conduct. He has mixed feelings about himself. Conscious of guilt, he seeks relief by way of confession: "I confess my guilt" (v. 19). On the other hand, he regards himself superior to his enemies who hate him because he follows "the thing that is good" (v. 21).

The psalmist displays some of the hypersensitivity typical of the sick. He feels neglected and avoided: "My friends and companions stay away . . . and my relatives keep far from me" (v. 12). He feels cut off from people. Words fail him. "I am like one who does not hear and has nothing to say" (v. 15). However, there is a ray of light that dispels the darkness of his gloomy mood. He is not alone. God is with him and God knows of his misery: "O Lord, You know what I need and my pain is not hidden from You" (v. 10).

The crisis has brought him closer to God: "I wait for You, O God, You will answer, my God ... Hasten to help me, O God, my deliverer" (v. 16, 23).

Reflection: Guilt
The psalmist comes through as a thoroughly honest and sincere person without a shred of self-righteousness. He is ill and in pain and believes that his suffering is punishment for his sins. Deserted by friends and family and maligned by enemies, he makes no defense for himself. He is too worn out to argue. He acts as though deaf and keeps silent (v. 13-15). Among his detractors are persons for whom he once did favors, and now they "repay evil for good" (v. 21). Rather than trying to restore his former reputation and status in the community, he warns, above all, to be right with God: "God, all my desire is before You" (v. 10). For this purpose he makes full confession of his failings, sins, and foolishness, counting on God for relief from his burden of guild. "For in You, O God, I hope; You will answer" (v. 16).

Not many have tolerance for criticism. They don't want to hear about their faults. They resent so-called guilt trips. But how can we hope to correct and reform our ways unless we confront what's wrong with us? Benjamin Franklin said we should be grateful to our enemies for telling us our faults.

The psalmist shows courage in coping with guilt. He recognizes all the wrong within him and shows remorse for his misdeeds. Finally, somewhat relieved by his confession, he throws himself upon the mercy of God: "Forsake me not, O God ... be not far from me. Hasten to help me, O God, my deliverer" (v. 22-23).


Psalm 39
For the Leader, for Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.

I said: 'I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue; I will keep a curb upon my mouth, while the wicked is before me.'
I was dumb with silence; I held my peace, had no comfort; and my pain was held in check.
My heart waxed hot within me; while I was musing, the fire kindled; then spoke I with my tongue:

'Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; let me know how short-lived I am.
Behold, Thou hast made my days as hand-breadths; and mine age is as nothing before Thee; surely every man at his best estate is altogether vanity. Selah
Surely man walketh as a mere semblance; surely for vanity they are in turmoil;
he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope, it is in Thee.
Deliver me from all my transgressions; make me not the reproach of the base.
I am dumb, I open not my mouth; because Thou hast done it.
Remove Thy stroke from off me; I am consumed by the blow of Thy hand.
With rebukes dost Thou chasten man for iniquity, and like a moth Thou makest his beauty to consume away; surely every man is vanity. Selah

Hear my prayer, O HaShem, and give ear unto my cry; keep not silence at my tears; for I am a stranger with Thee, a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
Look away from me, that I may take comfort, before I go hence, and be no more.'

Is Life Worth Living?
How do you face death--not somebody else's, but your own? Do you remember when you first came to grips with the thought of your death? While young, the idea of dying scarcely occurs to us, and if it does, we quickly put it out of our mind. But later in life, events force us to reckon seriously with our mortality. It dawns upon us how much of an endangered species we are. We realize that our life hangs on a thin thread.

We do not know what triggered the psalmist's shocked recognition of the brevity of life. Was it a narrow escape from danger/ A health crisis? The loss of a dear one? Whatever the cause, he first reacted with stunned silence: "I was dumb with silence.. My heart was in turmoil" (v. 3, 4). He did not dare say aloud what was on his mind, lest his words encourage the godless in their cynicism: "I will hold my tongue in the presence of the wicked" (v. 2).

However, his sense of despair could not be repressed much longer. What troubled him was not just the brevity of life, as short as "hand-breadths" (v. 6), nor was it the fear of death, but a paralyzing sense of the worthlessness and vanity of human existence. What is the use of all this hustle and bustle? "Man is a mere futility, . he gains wealth, not knowing who will use it.. Everything dear to him vanishes like a moth" (v. 7, 12). Stripped of hope and meaning in this life, he turns to God: "What may I expect, O God? In You lies my hope" (v. 8).

The psalmist was left to wonder about the brevity of life. Is it a waste and futility? Believing, however, that he may have dialogue with God, he hoped God would pay attention to his prayer and tears even though he was of small account, a mere "stranger and sojourner": "Hear my prayer, O God, and give ear to my cry; keep not silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You and a sojourner, as all my ancestors were" (v. 13). Having scaled down his expectations, he would settle for very little: "Spare me and let me have some comfort before I go and be no more" (v. 14).

Reflection: Death
From the human point of view, death is an incomprehensible scandal. It drives home not only the brevity of life but the indignity of being reduced, in the end, to a condition no better than that of insects. Franz Kafka, in one of his parables, tells of the transformation of a human being into a cockroach. The psalmist compares man to a moth: "Like a moth You make his beauty to be consumed. Surely every person is vanity" (v. 12). Other psalmists affirm the presence of God at the very heights of enthusiasm. The author of Psalm 8, for example, is enthralled by God's majesty, reflected in the heavens and in the order of nature on Earth. However small the human creature appears to be in the cosmic context, man still is God's crowning creation, destined to rule over all other creatures on Earth. The author of Psalm 19 is jubilant at the sight of the heavenly bodies that run their orbits, under God's laws and God's spiritual gifts to man. On the other hand, the author of Psalm 39 speaks to us out of the depths of futility as he contemplates the prospect of annihilation in death. In his condition of helplessness, he feels driven into the arms of God: "And now, God, what do I wait for? My hope, it is in You" (v. 8). He believes in his abiding connection with God through prayer. "Hear my prayer, O God, and give ear unto my cry. Keep not silence at my tears." (v. 13). Evidently, the human being, even if reduced to a moth, is significant enough to have a relationship with God.

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