This week's portion: birthings
This week's portion: a Torah journey with Rebecca

Psalm 20: a psalm for childbirth

As I mentioned a while back, my final project for my psalms tutorial is an exploration of two psalms which have classically been associated with childbirth, one of which is psalm 20, which begins "May God answer you in your day of trouble." In one interpretation,  Midrash Tehillim draws an analogy between the God-Israel relationship and the relationship of a mother and daughter who, though they have quarreled, are still so deeply connected that when the daughter cries out in labor, her mother -- even if her mother is in heaven, e.g. the world to come -- cries out along with her. "The suffering of my daughter is my suffering," the mother says. How wondrous that the sages could understand God as our Mother, who endures the birth-pangs of our transformation along with us!

I have a few more teachings to share on this psalm, but first I wanted to offer my (somewhat clunky) translation of psalm 20. Please note that where the original text features the tetragrammaton, I've replaced that Name with יה, because this is my working copy of the psalm designed to be printed and there are Jewish traditions which prohibit writing the four-letter Name on anything which might be treated carelessly or thrown away.

Psalm 20
תהילים פרק כ
א  לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.
For the leader: a psalm of David.

ב  יַעַנְךָ יה, בְּיוֹם צָרָה;    יְשַׂגֶּבְךָ, שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.
May God answer you in your day of trouble,
May the name of the God of Jacob place you in safe shelter,

ג  יִשְׁלַח-עֶזְרְךָ מִקֹּדֶשׁ;    וּמִצִּיּוֹן, יִסְעָדֶךָּ.
Send forth help for you from the holy place,
And support for you from Zion.

ד  יִזְכֹּר כָּל-מִנְחֹתֶךָ;    וְעוֹלָתְךָ יְדַשְּׁנֶה סֶלָה.
(May God) remember all of your grain-offerings,
And accept the fat of your burnt offerings, selah,

ה  יִתֶּן-לְךָ כִלְבָבֶךָ;    וְכָל-עֲצָתְךָ יְמַלֵּא.
Give to you according to your own heart,
And fulfill all of your counsel.

ו  נְרַנְּנָה, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ--    וּבְשֵׁם-אֱלֹהֵינוּ נִדְגֹּל;
יְמַלֵּא יה,    כָּל-מִשְׁאֲלוֹתֶיךָ.
We will shout for joy in your redemption,
And raise up a banner with the name of our God:
May God fulfill all of your requests.

ז  עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי--    כִּי הוֹשִׁיעַ יה, מְשִׁיחוֹ:
יַעֲנֵהוּ, מִשְּׁמֵי קָדְשׁוֹ--    בִּגְבֻרוֹת, יֵשַׁע יְמִינוֹ.
Now I know that God saves those whom God has anointed.
God will answer from God's holy heavens
With the mighty acts of God's right hand.

ח  אֵלֶּה בָרֶכֶב,    וְאֵלֶּה בַסּוּסִים;
וַאֲנַחְנוּ,    בְּשֵׁם-יה אֱלֹהֵינוּ נַזְכִּיר.
They (trust) in chariots, they (trust) in horses,
(But) we trust in the name of Adonai our God, upon which we call.

ט  הֵמָּה, כָּרְעוּ וְנָפָלוּ;    וַאֲנַחְנוּ קַּמְנוּ, וַנִּתְעוֹדָד.
They are bowed and fallen
But we rise and are strengthened.

י  יה הוֹשִׁיעָה:    הַמֶּלֶךְ, יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם-קָרְאֵנוּ.
Save (us), O God, sovereign who answers us
On the day when we call!

The "time of trouble" at the beginning of the psalm and the "day when we call" at the end of the psalm can both be understood as the day of labor and delivery. The rabbis further note that this psalm has nine verses (if you ignore the superscription, "for the leader: a psalm of David"), and these nine verses can be likened to the nine months of pregnancy.

In A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth, Michele Klein notes that Jews have recited psalms to ease delivery since the gaonic period and that psalm 20 has been frequently used in this way. In the fourteenth century there was a custom of a "helper" reciting this psalm while the woman in labor focused her thoughts on a certain name of God, a procedure repeated nine times. Starting in the seventeenth century there are records of a practice in which the reader engaged in kabbalistic letter-permutations of the divine Name each time it appears in this psalm -- the reader, of course, being the woman's husband who was probably outside the delivery room, since women of that era would not have known these practices (and, I'm guessing, women in any era would find that kind of finicky letter permutation practice challenging during contractions!)

And the Zohar notes that there are 70 words in psalm 20, which (in that text's understanding) correspond to the seventy cries of the laboring woman. (Seventy cries, eh? I'll have to bear that in mind.)

Of the secondary texts I studied, my favorite is the passage from Midrash Tehillim, which oscillates between reading the "time of trouble" as a reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (a moment of communal crisis) and as a reference to every woman's experience in labor (a moment of individual or personal crisis.) I like that these interpretations coexist.

And, of course, from this vantage I can see that the (painful and traumatic) destruction of the Temple was also the birth-pangs of a new paradigm of Judaism...just as I can imagine that once I make it through the physical and emotional rigors of labor and delivery, something miraculous and new will emerge in my own life. There's light at the end of the tunnel, and there's comfort in knowing that wherever we are -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- God is there with us, and will be there when we reach the other side.

It's hard to know how much of this learning will stick with me when I am in the extraordinary space/time of the delivery room, but I'm grateful to have had the chance to delve into this learning as I prepare to give birth.