26 May 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
26 May 2022 (Psalm 92)

The Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna … Franz Schubert produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92 for the synagogue (Photograph courtesy Jews of New York)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ascension Day, and later today (26 May 2022) I hope attend the Ascension Day Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford (7.30 pm).

But, before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 92:

In the Authorised Prayer Book, one of two prayerbooks I regularly use for prayers and reflections on Friday evenings, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, describes Psalm 92 as ‘a song for the Sabbath Day.’

Lord Sacks recalls that by the 12th century, the custom existed to say Psalm 92 as a song of welcome to the Shabbat. He says this psalm was understood by the Sages as ‘a song for the time to come, for the day which will be Shabbat and rest in life everlasting.’

The Tzfat mystics, including Rabbi Isaac Luria, developed the custom of saying special psalms and songs of welcome to Shabbat, including six extra psalms (95-99 and 29), before singing Psalm 92.

Lord Sacks says Shabbat is ‘not merely a day of rest, it is a rehearsal within time, for the age beyond time when humanity, guided by the call of God, moves beyond strife, evil and oppression, to create a world of harmony, respecting the integrity of creation as God’s work, and the human person as God’s image.’

He continues: ‘At that time people looking back at history will see that though evil flourished “like grass”, it was short-lived, while the righteous grow slowly but stand tall “like the cedar of Lebanon.” Because our time perspective is short, we seem to inhabit a world n which evil prevails. Were we able to see history as a whole, we would know that good wins the final victory; in the long run justice prevails.’

A popular story connected with Psalm 92 involves Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known widely as the Maharal, a great sage who lived in Prague during the reign of the Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century.

Rabbi Loew is said to have been endowed with supernatural gifts that he combined with the four elements: fire and water were represented by his assistants, air was represented by the rabbi himself, and earth was found in the Golem. He brought these together bring to life the Golem, a sculpture moulded from the mud of the riverbed in Prague.

The Golem grew stronger and stronger. Instead of heroic deeds, he became more-and-more uncontrollable and destructive. Rabbi Loew was promised that anti-Semitic violence would end in Prague once he destroyed the Golem.

One day, the Golem was found uprooting trees and destroying the rabbi’s home while the rabbi was in the synagogue singing Psalm 92. The rabbi rushed out to remove the tablet from the Golem’s mouth. Fearing the Golem could fall into the wrong hands, Rabbi Loew smeared clay on the Golem’s forehead, turning emet into met, so that the Hebrew word for truth became the Hebrew word for death and life was taken out of the giant’s body.

Rabbi Loew put him to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue. The rabbi then returned and continued to sing Psalm 92 … and so, it is said, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague is the only place in the world where this psalm is sung twice.

A few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, the composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai (‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord’), for Vienna’s main synagogue, the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse.

The Jewish community had asked Beethoven in 1825 to compose a cantata for the dedication of the Stadttempel. He was unable to accept the commission, although he apparently carried out a preliminary study of Musik der alter Juden, perhaps with this in mind. Instead, the cantata was written by Josef Deschler (1742-1852), a kappelmeister at the Stephansdom, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Franz Schubert wrote his setting of Psalm 92 for the choir of the synagogue.

The musicologist Elaine Brody suggests in Schubert Studies: ‘Sulzer was meticulous in his text-setting; he must have advised Schubert on these matters.’ Schubert could have fulfilled his commission by writing music to a German translation. Instead, he decided to work with the Hebrew language.

Schubert’s Psalm 92 sounds like many of his other melodies and part-songs. Elaine Brody is of the opinion that, stylistically, his setting of Psalm 92 ‘resembles church music more than synagogue music; it displays no characteristic Hebrew melody.’

‘The righteous … grow like a cedar in Lebanon’ (Psalm 92: 12) … a young girl with a violin and her friend beneath a cedar tree at Curraghchase Forest Park near Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 92 (NRSVA):

A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.

1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
3 to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
5 How great are your works, O Lord!
Your thoughts are very deep!
6 The dullard cannot know,
the stupid cannot understand this:
7 though the wicked sprout like grass
and all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction for ever,
8 but you, O Lord, are on high for ever.
9 For your enemies, O Lord,
for your enemies shall perish;
all evildoers shall be scattered.

10 But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox;
you have poured over me fresh oil.
11 My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;
my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.

12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
15 showing that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Mission in Australia.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Peter Burke, Manager at Mission and Anglican Community Engagement AnglicareSA.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (26 May 2022, Ascension Day) invites us to pray:

Lord, help us to focus on care and justice in all we do. May we look after each other and challenge exclusion wherever we see it.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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