Shiur #34: "In Remembrance Lies The Secret of the Redemption" Psalm 137 (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet


This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Louis and Margaret Klein, z”l
by Mr. and Mrs. William Klein


Lecture 34:

"In remembrance lies THe secret of the redemption"

 Psalm 137 (Part II)

Rav Elchanan Samet



1            (1)     By the rivers of Babylon,

                        there we sat and wept,

                        as we remembered Zion.

              (2)     On the willows in its midst

                        we hung our lyres.

2            (3)     For there our captors required of us words of song,

                        and our despoilers gladness.

                        "Sing to us the songs of Zion."

              (4)     How shall we sing the Lord's song

                        on foreign soil?

3            (5)     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

                        may my right hand forget.

              (6)     May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

                        if I do not remember you,

                        if I do not raise Jerusalem

                        to the head of my joy.

4            (7)     Remember, O Lord, against the children of Edom

                        the day of Jerusalem,

                        those who said, "Raze it, raze it

                        to its very foundations."

5            (8)     O daughter of Babylon, filled with plunder,

                        happy is he who will repay you

                        your recompense for what you have done to us.

              (9)     Happy is he who will seize

                        and dash your infants against the rock.



1.      Presentation of the question


Our review of the five stanzas in the psalm in the previous lecture teaches that contents-wise, our psalm is comprised of three separate units, each having its own subject:


1.      Stanzas 1-2 – the exiles' grief and its expression in not playing music or singing

2.      Stanza 3 – the oaths to remember Jerusalem in the exile

3.      Stanzas 4-5 – a reckoning with the nations who brought about the destruction.


The common denominator between these three units is very broad – they all express the complex emotional state of those who were exiled to Babylon in the land of their exile. The question arises whether or not there exists a more specific connection between these three units: Does our psalm give expression to a particular idea, which progressively develops over the course of the psalm, advancing from one stanza to the next and from one unit to the next? Is there in our psalm an idea that binds together its various parts, bestowing upon them literary-conceptual unity? Or perhaps our psalm is merely a collection of thoughts and moods, the connection between them being loose and general – all are the product of the historical situation of the Babylonian exile.


Our question relates primarily to the connection between stanza 3 and the two units that surround it. This stanza is the central unit of the poem, not only owing to its location in the middle of the psalm, but also owing to its content, which stands out in its uniqueness and emotional quality. We already noted in the previous section that because of the many fundamental differences between this stanza and the two previous stanzas, it does not appear to be their continuation; similarly, stanzas 4-5 do not appear to continue what is stated in stanza 3, either stylistically or substantively. Once again, then, our question arises regarding the literary-conceptual unity of our psalm.


2.      Literary connections between the three units in the psalm


Before we try to answer this question (this will be done in section III), we will try to prove in this section that literary unity indeed exists between the various parts of the psalm, unity that finds expression in shared words, common motifs, and other ways.


Pairs of guide words


            First of all, note should be made of several pairs of words that run through all three parts of the psalm and serve as pairs of guide words.


            The first pair is "Zion" – "Jerusalem." The word "Zion" is mentioned in each of the first two stanzas, whereas the word "Jerusalem" is mentioned twice in the middle stanza (this was already noted as one of the differences between these two units). The word "Jerusalem" appears once again in stanza 4 in the expression, "the day of Jerusalem."


            The second pair of words is the pair of opposites, "weeping" – "gladness," which connects the first two stanzas ("and wept;" "and our despoilers gladness") to the third stanza – "to the head of my joy."[1]


            The third pair is the most important one, tying together all three units of the psalm. This is the pair of opposites, "remembrance" – "forgetting." In stanza 1, the verb z-kh-r ("remember") appears in the first verse: "And we wept, as we remembered Zion." In stanza 3, the verb sh-kh-ch ("forget") appears twice: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget." In the continuation of that same stanza, the verb z-kh-r appears: "If I do not remember you." Stanza 4 opens with the words: "Remember, O Lord." In the three units of the psalm, "remembering" appears in two different contexts as appropriate conduct, whereas in stanza 3, "forgetting" appears as inappropriate conduct, so that oaths are taken in order to prevent it.


The common motif of stanza 3 and the two previous stanzas


            Let us now discuss the self-punishment that the oath-taker accepts upon himself in stanza 3 should he violate his oaths: 1) "may my right hand forget;" 2) "may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."


            Is there a connection between these two punishments? From the realistic-physiological perspective, they seem to be connected and to fall upon a person at the same time: paralysis of the right side of the body ("may my right hand forget" – may my right hand become deadened) as a result of a stroke is often accompanied by a loss of the faculty of speech.[2]


            But why does the psalmist specifically choose this two-fold punishment from among the wide variety of calamities that could possibly befall a person? Why specifically were these two aspects of the same phenomenon important to him?


            The answer seems to be found in the first unit of the psalm, in stanzas 1-2. What is the meaning of hanging the lyres on the willows of Babylon? It serves as a declaration that here, on the rivers of Babylon, the Levite musicians will no longer play their lyres. The rationale underlying this symbolic declaration is explicitly stated in stanza 2. In this stanza, the exiled Levites proclaim that they will not sing the songs of Zion, for "how shall we sing the Lord's song on foreign soil?"


            We see, then, from the Levites' words and actions in stanzas 1-2 that playing and singing the Lord's song/the song of Zion on the soil of Babylon would constitute an act of treachery against the remembrance of Jerusalem, for it would testify to reconciliation with the reality of life in exile and a readiness to observe in exile that which belongs exclusively to Zion.


            It is precisely in order to reject such conduct that the psalmist takes his oaths in stanza 3! And now we understand the two-fold punishment that he accepts upon himself should he violate his oaths: When they remembered Zion, the Levites hung their lyres on the willow trees as a sign that they would not play them on Babylonian soil. But "if I forget you, O Jerusalem" and take the lyre down from the willow and play by the rivers of Babylon – "may my right hand forget" - that hand which plays the lyre. And if the resolute refusal in stanza 2, "how shall we sing the Lord's song on foreign soil," will not be remembered, but rather the Lord's song will be sung in exile - "may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth" - that tongue which sings.


            We have demonstrated, then, that all that was said above notwithstanding, stanza 3 does indeed constitute a continuation of the first unit of the psalm; a central motif binds the two units – the motif of not playing and singing the song of Zion on foreign soil.[3]


Similar means of expression in stanza 3 and stanza 5


            Is it possible also to find a common denominator between stanza 3 and the third unit of the psalm? S.D. Goitein discussed this issue in his study of our psalm:[4]


There is here [in the third stanza] a curse for the sake of a blessing, just as at the end of the psalm there is a blessing for the sake of a curse.

The psalmist curses himself in the event that he forgets Zion; but we are confident that he will not forget. This means that this curse is a blessing bestowed upon one who remains faithful to his homeland.

And the reverse: "Happy is he who will seize" is a curse pronounced upon Babylon in the form of a blessing bestowed upon the one who repays it its recompense. This curse-blessing was fulfilled within a relatively short time,[5] and by way of the love [for Zion] and the hate [for Babylon] expressed in this psalm, the nation was preserved and the redeemed returned to Zion.


            The literary unity of the psalm across its three units has thus been demonstrated, and now we must try to uncover the conceptual significance of this unity.




1.      The progress from the first unit to stanza 3


In our discussion of stanza 3 (in the first section of this study), we noted two grammatical differences between it and the previous two stanzas (first person singular in stanza 3 as opposed to first person plural in stanzas 1-2; future tense verbs in stanza 3 as opposed to past tense verbs in stanzas 1-2), and two substantive tensions between it and them (the very need for oaths to remember Jerusalem; the existence of "my joy" as opposed to a rejection of gladness in the previous stanzas). In light of what was said in the previous section regarding the substantive continuity that exists between stanzas 1-2 and stanza 3, it might be expected that a single explanation should account for all the differences between the stanzas.


The explanation that we wish to propose is simple: As was noted at the beginning of our study, stanzas 1-2 describe the initial encounter between the exiles and the land of their exile, when they are still subject to the shock of detachment and transition. But this is not the time when our psalm was composed. It was composed at a later stage, after the exiles had already adjusted themselves to a certain degree to their new situation. This process of adjustment to the new reality and the normalization of life in exile were inevitable. This difference between the initial encounter with the exile and the later going on with life is what underlies all of the aforementioned differences. Let us examine the matter in greater detail:


· Since the point in time in which the psalmist finds himself is well into the period of exile, he describes the initial encounter with exile in past tense.


· When the exiles came to Babylon, they were a united group, and therefore their actions and reactions are described in the plural. But after the people went off in their separate ways, each person worrying about himself and his family, the account shifts to the first person singular.


· The first encounter with the rivers of Babylon involved weeping that stemmed from longings for Zion. Song and gladness were impossible at this stage – certainly not songs of Zion. With the passage of time, however, and as part of normal life from which there is no escape, each of the exiles will have reason to celebrate, be it on account of a wedding, the birth of a child, or the like. Thus, the transition from weeping and rejection of gladness in stanzas 1-2 to the possibility of "my joy" in stanza 3.


· The process of adjustment and normalization of life in exile involves a great danger: the memory of Jerusalem might fade, the mourning over its destruction might diminish, and every one of the exiles will involve himself in his own affairs and celebrations. But when there is no remembrance of Jerusalem and Zion – there is also no redemption! Stanza 3 deals with this danger. The question that is raised there is how to preserve something of the feelings expressed in stanzas 1-2, of that absolute loyalty to Zion, even after the cohesive group of exiles has broken apart and each person is involved in his own affairs. The three oaths of stanza 3 come to address this issue. The need for such oaths follows from the demand that each of the exiles makes of himself to ensure that Jerusalem be remembered even when dwelling peacefully in exile. Such remembrance involves emotional effort accompanied by an oath.


This explains all the connections that we found between stanzas 1-2 and stanza 3: In stanza 1, "when we remembered Zion," this was inevitable remembrance, for it was just recently that we left Zion. But in stanza 3, this remembrance requires obligation by way of an oath. It is because of this obligation that the memory of Jerusalem will be preserved even when we no longer sit and weep on the rivers of Babylon.

In stanzas 1-2, the abstention from playing music and singing was spontaneous, but in stanza 3 it is conscious: such actions – playing lyres and singing the Lord's song on foreign soil – would be an act of treachery against the memory of Jerusalem, and therefore the psalmist takes an oath not to do so and accepts upon himself a two-fold punishment if he violates it.


Stanzas 1-2 are ruled by weeping and avoiding gladness owing to the memory of Zion, but in stanza 3, individual joy is indeed possible and desirable. In order to ensure that this will not lead to the forgetting of the mourning over Jerusalem, the psalmist swears to raise Jerusalem "to the head of his joy."


2.      The progress from the stanza 3 to the third unit


Do stanzas 4-5 also reflect progress along the time-line, a certain development in the process of living in exile, in comparison to what was described in the previous stanzas? This question may be answered in the affirmative, but let us first take note of what is not found in our psalm in any of its stanzas - there is no mention of any hope to return to Zion and rebuild it. How are we to understand this manifest omission?


Our psalm seems to belong to the beginning of the period of the Babylonian exile, that is to say, to the stage of Israel's arrival in exile (stanzas 1-2) and to the stage of their initial settlement there (stanza 3). At such an early stage of the exile, the heart does not allow the mouth to express hope for a quick end to the exile that has just now begun. This exile will last two generations, until historical circumstances change, the Babylonian empire vanishes from the world, and the exiles are granted permission to return to their homeland. The prophet Yirmiyahu had already prophesied prior to the destruction of the Temple that the exile would last for seventy years.[6]


Nevertheless, stanzas 4-5 note the first buds of thinking about the future, about the process of redemption. Whereas stanzas 1-3 are entirely directed towards remembering the past, so that this past would be firmly implanted in the consciousness of the exiles, stanzas 4-5 express the hope for a future in which revenge will be taken against those nations who had brought destruction upon Jerusalem.


In many of the prophecies of redemption found in Scripture, the revenge that God will take against the nations who acted evilly towards Israel constitutes a vital stage in the redemption process,[7] and in some instances this revenge precedes the ingathering of the exiles and makes it possible.[8] The requests for revenge against the children of Edom and against the daughter of Babylon should, therefore, be seen as the beginning of a consciousness of redemption among the exiles in Babylon. This consciousness restores the psalm to first person plural – "your recompense for what you have done to us."


Thinking about the future, about taking revenge against the nations as the first step in the process of redemption, also involves remembering the past, for the secret of redemption lies in remembrance. This remembrance requires first and foremost that the exiles remember "the day of Jerusalem" – the day of its destruction. Two images from that awful day rise up in the memories of the exiles: the image of the Edomites "who said, ‘Raze it, raze it to its very foundations,’" and the image of the Babylonians dashing the infants against the rocks of Judea. This remembrance is also included in the oath that the psalmist takes in stanza 3: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem… if I do not remember you." There is the memory of the city of Jerusalem in ruins and there is the memory of "the day of Jerusalem" – of the actions of the nations that brought about the destruction.


The verb "z-kh-r" in stanza 4, however, relates not to the exiles, but to God, who is being addressed: "Remember, O Lord…." The very fact that the exiles turn to God manifests development in their situation, for thus far God has not been addressed in this psalm.


The use of the imperative, "Remember," connects us to the previous stanzas, alluding as follows: We remember Zion and haven't forgotten Jerusalem; and so we ask that You too should remember the day of Jerusalem – "and render to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom their insult, wherewith they have insulted You, O Lord" (Tehilim 79:12). When God will take revenge against the children of Edom and the daughter of Babylon, the process of returning to Jerusalem, which presently seems so far away, will begin. And then, "when the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like men in a dream" (Tehilim 126:1).


We have tried to demonstrate in this and in the preceding section that Tehilim 137 is a unified poem, and that all three of its units describe a single developing process: the emotional journey that the exiles in Babylon experienced from the time that they first arrived in Babylon, through their resettlement in the land of their exile a short while afterwards, and until the appearance of the first hopes for the coming of the redemption.


(To be continued.)


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In the previous lecture, we noted this as one of the differences that create tension between stanzas 1-2 and stanza 3, and we stand by that assertion. But tension that is created through the use of the same word (or the opposite word) testifies to literary unity.

[2] This occurs when the stroke takes place in the left lobe of the brain. When the stroke takes place in the right lobe, the left side of the body is paralyzed and other faculties are impaired, but speech is unaffected. The ancients did not know this, but experience certainly taught them that paralysis of the right side of the body is generally accompanied by loss of the faculty of speech.

[3] This is the way stanza 3 was understood by the Tosafot in Avoda Zara 3b, s.v. im eshkachekh Yerushalayim tishkach yemini: "The plain meaning of the verse is as follows: If I forget you, O Jerusalem – and sing the Lord's song on foreign soil - may my right hand forget how to play the lyre; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, should I wish to sing with my mouth, if I do not remember you."

[4] Ha-Chumash Ha-Acharon shel Sefer Tehilim, Iyyunim Be-Mikra, pp. 218-219.

[5] See note 11.

[6] To us, seventy years of exile seems very short, as if redemption were right around the corner, but this feeling stems from our historical experience of an exile that has lasted close to two thousand years. For the members of that generation, who had never yet experienced exile, the very need to settle on foreign soil and build a new life that would continue through the present and the next generation was seen as an exceedingly difficult and drawn out test.

[7] Already in the main prophecy of redemption in the Torah, we read (Devarim 30:7): "And the Lord your God will put all these curses upon your enemies, and on them who hate you, who persecuted you."

[8] See, for example, the prophecy against Babylon in Yeshayahu 13: only after the description of Babylon's fall and the revenge taken against it is it stated (14:1-2): "For the Lord will have mercy on Yaakov, and will yet choose Israel and set them in their own land… And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place… and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors."

The prophecy of redemption in Yeshayahu 63 opens with an account of the harsh revenge that will be taken against Edom: "Who is this that come from Edom, with crimsoned garments from Batzra?… For the day of vengeance is in My heart, and the year of My redeemed is come." Also in Yechezkel 35-36, we find a prophecy of redemption that opens with the punishments to be meted out against Edom (35:1-36:8), which are followed by a description of the redemption of the land and the people (the continuation of chapter 36).

We have brought these specific examples because they deal with God's revenge taken against Edom and Babylon – the two nations mentioned in our psalm.