Thursday, October 13, 2016

Psalm 121

Attributed to King David


I lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, he that keepeth Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is thy keeper:
the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

The sun shall not smite thee by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:
he shall preserve thy soul.

The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
from this time forth, and evermore



Modern versions of the Psalms-in-English have a dreadful tendency to transform into unrhythmic and unscanned prose what, in the original, was intended to be sung, with musical accompaniment. Not so the King James, which manages to achieve the literary impossible – not simply to translate successfully a great work of literature, but to create a new work which is itself a literary masterpiece. Modern versions may be closer to the authentic meaning, may obtain greater accuracy, but to those brought up on the King James they read nonetheless like modern "translations" of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Somehow the archaisms, the obsolescences, the anachronisms, are fitting; after all, these are ancient scriptures, quilled on cow-hide or scratched with a stylus onto wax tablet, something in the range of three thousand years ago.

שִׁיר לַמַּעֲלוֹת
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל-הֶהָרִים        מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי
עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְהוָה              עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
אַל-יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ          אַל-יָנוּם שֹׁמְרֶךָ
הִנֵּה לֹא-יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן       שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל
יְהוָה שֹׁמְרֶךָ                  יְהוָה צִלְּךָ עַל-יַד יְמִינֶךָ
יוֹמָם הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לֹא-יַכֶּכָּה       וְיָרֵחַ בַּלָּיְלָה
יְהוָה יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל-רָע        יִשְׁמֹר אֶת-נַפְשֶׁךָ
יְהוָה יִשְׁמָר-צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ    מֵעַתָּה וְעַד-עוֹלָם


What King James does not manage, however, and I have yet to find any modern version which manages it either, is to retain the formal structure of the original. In translating an Italian Sonnet, would it not be automatic to retain the fourteen lines, the rhyming scheme, the use of the iambic pentameter? Where, then, are the echo-lines, the couplets, the parallelisms? In the version printed here, I have loosely restored them, while still keeping the text of the King James. Do I sense another task for my old age coming on?

Running my own synagogue for many years, I have found many an appropriate occasion to recite this particular Psalm. On the day that I am writing these lines – April 22nd 1994 – the first free elections are taking place in South Africa, a country, and a cause, close to my heart since I first travelled there sixteen years ago. At the end of shacharit this morning, after a brief sermon from the amud on the background to the elections, I recited this Psalm again, and discovered once again how, given a modern context, these ancient hymns can still reduce a man, a congregation, to tears.

It comes, this Psalm, from a collection (numbers 120-134) believed to have been sung by pilgrims en route to the Temple in Jerusalem for the "regalim", the three harvest festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavu'ot (Pentecost) and Succot (Tabernacles). Its attribution to King David is certainly apocryphal. The title of the collection is Shirey Ma'alot, Songs of Ascent – the going-up to Jerusalem echoed grammatically in the modern word Aliyah, emigration to the State of Israel.



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