Psalm 117

“Words dissipate power.” A former presidential campaign manager so taught a group of rabbis. He emphasized that we need to use fewer words to wield power, which he defined as the ability to effect change. As an example, he pointed out how Marlon Brando as the Don in the “The Godfather” used only a few words when directing action. The presentation made me more appreciative of those who use words sparingly and purposefully, with the intention of following their example.

Psalm 117 evokes this teaching as it is the shortest of the Psalms and packs much power. At first glance it is distinctive in the immediacy of its universalism. On second thought, many questions arise: Who is the “us” of the second verse? In what context would these words have been recited and to whom? How does Judaism relate to non-Jews, their respective faiths, and even the nature of their souls?

Join me for a close reading of the sixteen words of Psalm 117 and their diverse understandings.

This Psalm study is dedicated to Ralph Stern.

PS.  Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France, organized after World War Two to bring diverse Christians together in song. Over time, it became a place of pilgrimage for young people to sing sacred words together. The compositions in a multitude of languages expressed diversity and commonality. Some of the melodies of Taize found their way into Jewish prayer. For instance, Rabbi Levi Kelman took the melody for the last line of Psalms, sung in Latin at Taize, and applied it to the Hebrew as the theme song for his Jerusalem synagogue, Kol HaNishama, which then caught around as a synagogue chant. Five years ago, I had the privilege to spend five days at Taize as a guest of the brothers of the Monastery. It was “All Saints” weekend and thousands gathered to chant, largely verses of Psalms, which I found spiritually profound. I share “Laudate Dominum,” the Taize Latin rendition of Psalm 117: