Psalm 97

We will begin using this melody from Mishkan Chicago for the final lines of the third psalm of Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 97.

Most of the psalm is a description of God’s majesty over the earth, and the main theme is that God is supposed to instill some sort of justice. The image of this justice causes enemies to flee, and it brings joy to those who are with God. Though it describes the justice as already existing, the prayer to save thouse who are deserving reveals that this justice is still aspirational. In verse 10, there is the command for those who love God to hate evil. This is one of many examples in which our actions are necessary to create the vision of a world full of true justice. When we shun evil, we help to create a better world, but what’s in it for us?

The final two lines of the psalm, which we will sing with this new melody, provide a more personal reward for transforming the world around us:

אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי־לֵב שִׂמְחָה׃ שִׂמְחוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּה’ וְהוֹדוּ לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ׃

Or zarua latzaddik ul’yishrei lev simchah: Simchu tzaddikim bAdonai vehodu lezekher kodsho:

Light is stored for the righteous, joy for the honorable. Rejoice in Adonai, you who are righteous; acclaim the holiness of God’s name.

Robert Alter identifies how this image of light recasts the flashes of harsh judgement as a more hopeful image for the future. Malbim describes this light as piece of divine light that is planted in the righteous person in the hope that it will grow to spread righteousness throughout the world.

When we sing these words, we can think about those sparks of goodness in ourselves that we can allow to grow. Rebbe Nachman, one of the earliest Hassidic masters, described the process of writing melodies in a similar way. In his writings, he imagines that it is impossible for someone to have no sparks of goodness. By focusing on those points of goodness, it is possible to encourage them to grow, allowing someone who even seemed completely wicked to transform into a good person.

This teaching is far from perfect—there are wicked people, and simply focusing on one good point may not be enough to transform them into a better person. The message, however, is that we should constantly feel the potential to become radically better people, and when we feel our sense of inspiration dwindling, we can look for the sparks of goodness in ourselves and others.

Rebbe Nachman takes this image one step further by describing how a creative mind can see the sparks floating around and to take them as notes to string together into melodies. By singing and focusing on these melodies, someone can access the inspiration from them. This style of wordless melodies called niggunim was an important spiritual practice for Hassidic Jews for many generation, and has become more common in all strands of Judaism.

This renewed interest in niggunim is part of a shift in musical style to more participatory and meditative services. It is my hope that by being more intentional about which melodies we are adding, we can use them to access inspiration from the figures and communities that created them to help us see the creativity and spiritual depth in our community to feed the divine sparks in each of us.