Psalm 22: A Prayer in the Night by Aviva Zornberg

psalm22 man walking under arch

My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?
And are far from my help at the words of my cry?
O my God, I call by day, but You do not answer;
And at night, and there is no respite (lo dumiya) for me.

The opening words of Psalm 22 are saturated with the associations of the many individual sufferers who have found in them some strange respite.

Respite from what? An unnamed suffering – the sense of being abandoned by God. The central paradox is that the lament over God’s absence is addressed to the very God who is at the same time present, “held within the space of prayer,” as Paul Ricoeur beautifully puts it.1 The psalm begins with the question Why? – lamah—a lament bordering on accusation and moves on to praise. This reversal undoes a quality of experience that seems to exclude any possible relation to God, while placing that relation at the heart of the cry. While the arc from lament to praise encompasses the whole Psalm, it is enigmatically concentrated within its parts.

Attempts have been made to trace this narrative to particular crises in David’s life; or, to generalize it in terms of the historic anguish of the Jewish people among the nations.

Here is a midrash that takes a different path.2 The proof-text is from Micah: “Rejoice not against me, O, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I shall rise up; though I sit in darkness, God is a light to me!” (7:8) The imagery of darkness and light, falling and rising, is classical: by way of Micah’s prophecy, the midrash interprets the trope in Psalm 22.

The “I” in this passage from Micah is Israel persecuted by the nations. But the discussion moves on to the experience of the righteous tzaddik, who, unlike the wicked rasha, rises up after falling. Despite initial disaster, Israel will regain her stature; in the drama of the righteous and the wicked, the fall will become the very ground of the recovery. The midrash develops this theme into a series of rhetorical oppositions, with the original crisis somehow generating its own salvation: “From the midst of anger, love (ratzon); from the midst of darkness, light; from the midst of distance, intimacy; from the midst of the fall of the righteous comes their exaltation.”3

This paradoxical claim is made most explicitly in another midrash on the same proof-text: “If I Had not fallen, I should not have risen up; if I had not sat in darkness, God would not have been a light for me.”4 Darkness here not only precedes light but creates the condition for light.The narrative of divine creation lays down the principle: darkness is the necessary setting for the first divine creative word: “Let there be light!”

What is the nature of such darkness, as the Psalmist evokes it? A classical midrashic motif identifies his cry with the unheard prayer of Esther, as she risks her life to save her people.5 There is no mention of this prayer in the text of the book of Esther. Psalm 22 becomes the shared creation of Esther and of King David, who foresees Esther imagining her people’s calamity and future deliverance.

That period, claims the midrash, was one of radical darkness in Jewish experience: a holocaust –the final annihilation of Esther’s people – impends. The key phrase quoted in the midrash to link the theme of catastrophe with the text of Esther is Haman’s description of the Jewish people: “There is a certain people who are scattered and disintegrated.” (Esther 3:8) This is Haman’s world. Esther’s response is “Go, gather all the Jews ….” (4:16) To pray is to gather the fragments. But in choosing to appear unsummoned before the King, Esther arouses the aggression of her courtiers; they propose, in the words of the Psalm (22:19), to distribute her clothing among themselves, as though she were already dead.

If Esther is imagined as the “I” of our Psalm, her sense of abandonment by God is conveyed by a riot of disjointed imagery: torn apart by bulls, wild oxen, ravening lions, and dogs; poured out like water; dismembered bones, melting like wax, her tongue parched and muted. This is the world of Bosch: the “I” of the speaker is fragmented, dislocated. The terror and violence of death are invoked to express spiritual and mental chaos. If God is gone, the self is lost to itself.

Such a catastrophe of inner darkness is evoked by shards of imagery. The metaphors succeed one another, creating a sense of uncertainty and torment. The flux of fragile and incomplete images gives body to the inexpressible. Harold Fisch writes powerfully of the incoherent imagery in the book of Hosea: “The abyss of absence …. [is one] in which the House of Israel will be lost, its identity gone. But no less it is an abyss that, so to speak, threatens God himself.”6 In this Psalm, too, the individual laments the loss of God, of God’s relation to the whole House of Israel. The cry to the absent God is, on one level, a cry for Him as His world recedes from Him.7

The nocturnal anguish of the individual whose subjectivity has disintegrated emerges in another metaphor: “I am a worm, and no man.” (22:7) Scorned by others, the Psalmist recognizes a demeaning truth: his worm-like insignificance. A phantasmal magnification inflates this fragment to fill his consciousness in the dark of night.8

This is the world of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, whose subject wakes up one morning to life as a cockroach. It is a world in which darkness represents not merely the absence of a voice to respond to one’s cries; not merely silence, but a non-silence – lo dumiya li. (22:3) This radical translation of the Hebrew moves us from the traditional translations in which the silence with which his cry is received allows him no relief, no respite, in his fruitless prayers.

The French Jewish philosopher, Andre Neher, translates in this way. Hauntingly, he evokes the different experience of the night, when “sounds that rend the silence” fill the air; “Like Job, he suffers from the aggressiveness of the night, which refuses him its silence.” “‘Non-silence’ is a silence more silent than silence. It is the fall of silence into a deeper stratum of nothingness; it is a shaft hollowed out beneath silence which leads to its most vertiginous depths.” 9 Neher hears in this darkness a metaphysical rupture within the innermost experience of the subject. This is the experience of Esther, already carved up and distributed (“I may count up all my bones!” (Psalms 22:18); of Job, whose friends torment him with sophistries, while God Himself speaks only at the end, “from the midst of the hurricane” (Job 38:1)10 and perhaps also of Rebecca who, as her innards are torn apart by her twin-pregnancy, cries out, “If so – Why then I? Lamah zeh anochi?” As the first human being to experience pregnancy as a problem, Rebecca protests, Why I? For her, too, the center does not hold. What does it mean to be a subject in the world, so subjected to   inner disunity, to unfathomable and unshareable pain? In Thomas Ogden’s psychoanalytic terms, her I-ness acknowledges “the ineffable, constantly moving and evolving nature of subjectivity.”11

In what sense is such darkness essential to the possibility of light? “If I had not sat in darkness, God would not have been a light to me.” Beyond the light of conscious knowledge, of a willed stability, there is that which moves from the depths, making one stumble and fall. The “I” that imagines that it is master of its own house, Freud says, is only one aspect of the inner world. The Talmud puts it this way: “No-one comes to stand (omed – to under-stand, firmly, stably) on the words of Torah unless one has slipped, stumbled (nichshal) over them.”12 The solid, nuclear “I” is lost on its first real encounter with otherness, whether from within or without. For Emanuel Levinas, the Other is “that which escapes me entirely.” For the radical Hasidic master, R. Zadok Ha-Cohen, such an encounter engenders a new and larger light. This is the significance of the concept of teshuva, repentance. Teshuva is not simply the corrective for sin, but the richer, dynamic world that becomes possible only after an experience of slipping, falling. A depth of knowledge that he calls the ta’am—the taste of the words of Torah – opens itself to those who have fathomed that darkness.13

In Psalm 22, that darkness is already there from the beginning: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” Before the particulars, the metaphors, the words, there is the cry, the taste of abandonment. Then, the accusing voices, the scornful faces, and the strobe light of faith in the very midst of abandonment: the memory of the fathers’ trust in God and His salvation (v. 5) and the personal knowledge that “You are He that took me out of the womb; You made me trust upon my mother’s breast. Upon You I have been cast from the womb; from my mother’s belly, you are my God!” (vv. 10-11) His praise of God is interlaced with the catastrophe of being thrown—from belly to breast—upon that which he must now trust. It is this that connects him with the resources of the father and the mother.

Like Rebecca and Job, the Psalmist “goes to seek God;” and having articulated his incoherence (“I may count [a-sapper] all my bones ….” [v. 18]), he re-counts (a-sapra) God’s name to his brothers.” (v. 23) From an enumeration of the parts, he can begin to speak of his re-integration: words in a narrative, individual among brothers, in a nation yet unborn. (v. 32) “A seed shall serve Him; it shall be told (ye-suppar) of God unto the next generation.” (v. 31)

Aviva-ZornbergAvivah Gottlieb Zornberg lives in Jerusalem where she has been lecturing on Torah since 1980. She reads biblical narratives through the prism of midrash, literature, philosophy and particularly psychoanalysis. She was born in London and grew up in Glasgow, where her father was a Rabbi and the head of the Rabbinical Court.  She studied Torah with him from childhood. Her PhD in English Literature is from Cambridge University, England. She taught English literature at the Hebrew University before turning to teaching Torah. She now teaches throughout the Jewish world, at synagogues, universities, and psychoanalytic institutes. She is the author of five critically acclaimed books. Her latest book, Moses: A Human Life (Yale University Press), recently appeared in paperback.

1 Paul Ricoeur, Thinking Biblically, (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 218.
2 Midrash Tehillim 22:7.
3 The expression mitoch – from the midst of – evokes an ambiguous linkage between the negative and the positive: something between “in the thick of darkness comes light” and “it is the extremity of darkness that generates light.”
4 Yalkut Tehillim 628.
5 See note 2. David intuits that Esther will in the future pray to God in this way at the darkest moment of her life. He therefore heads his Psalm with a poetic reference to Esther’s future words: La-menatzeach al ayelet ha-shachar – For the rising of the dawn.
6 Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose (Indiana University Press1990), 142.
7 The “praise” section of the Psalm is framed in many images of wholeness, of communal and fraternal solidarity.
8 The metaphor is classically stated in Isaiah 41:14: “Fear not, you worm Jacob!” Commentaries endow this repellent metaphor with a range of redemptive meanings.
9 Andre Neher, The Exile of the Word (Jewish Publication Society, 1981), 68.
10 The Hebrew min ha-sa’ara”, like mitoch, from the midst, suggests redemption arising from the heart of a calamitous world.
11 Thomas Ogden, Subjects of Analysis (Jason Aronson Inc., 1998), 25.
12 B.Gittin 43a.
13 Pri Tzadik 5:226.