Vigilance can be contemplative, as when one keeps a vigil. Or vigilance can be stressful, as when one keeps watch for the least sign of trouble, afraid to blink.
In last week’s post, Terumah: Tree of Light, I explored how the Hebrew word shakad (שָׁקַד) has two different meanings: “it was like an almond”, and “he was vigilant”. In the Hebrew Bible, some words based on shakad describe how the menorah is made like parts of an almond tree.1 Others refer to God’s vigilant attention to the Israelites,2 human vigilant alertness for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching vigilantly for someone to leave a town and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake and alert at night.5 One appearance of shakad that refers to staying alert at night is in Psalm 127:1.
This week I noticed that Psalm 127 as a whole is a meditation on the anxiety of vigilance and the serenity of acceptance.
Humans are easily gripped by anxiety. In simple situations, a bit of anxiety can be helpful, motivating a person to take action against a threat, or to create a more secure life. But continuous anxiety, like continuous suffering, damages both one’s physical health and one’s ability to make good decisions.
Psalm 127 begins with three different examples of how we cannot guarantee our own security, no matter how much we do. Knowing this makes humans anxious. How can we find serenity despite our insecurity? According to Psalm 127, the answer is God.
(A song of ascents for Solomon.)
Unless God builds a bayit
In vain do its builders labor.
Unless God watches over a city
In vain is the watchman shakad. (Psalm 127:1)
bayit (בַּיִת) = house, home, household; temple.
Psalm 127 is dedicated to King Solomon, who built the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem. He implication is that despite all the fine materials and the labor by both willing craftsmen and temporary slaves (corvée labor), the temple could not have become a home for God if God had not chosen to dwell there—or had not been welcomed into the hearts of the people.
The word bayit also means a physical house providing protection from the weather, wild beasts, and enemies; a home providing a place to rest in comfort and security; and a household or family providing mutual support.
A walled city also provided protection, security, and mutual support for its residents. Its watchmen served as guards to sound the alarm if they saw anything threatening. Today nation-states are supposed to fill the function of ancient cities, protecting their residents from external attack and internal crime, and providing systems for mutual aid and support.
The point of the first verse is that no matter how hard we work to achieve security, we cannot guarantee it. A house with locks and alarms and bars over the windows might still be smashed by a bomb or an earthquake; while setting the locks and alarms and seeing the bars help to keep the inhabitants in a state of useless anxiety. A nation with walls and guards on its borders, and X-ray machines in its airports, is still not safe from its own natives (especially when they are armed); while talking about “homeland security” generates more useless anxiety.
Real security comes not from anxious labor, but from a different state of mind, which this psalm attributes to God.
The next verse of Psalm 127 remains a puzzle for translators and commentators.
In vain you rise early
And stop to sit late,
Eating the bread of suffering;
Indeed [God] gives “his” beloved ones sheina. (Psalm 127:2)
sheina (שֵׁנָא) = ? (The usual translation of sheina here is “sleep”, but the word is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it occurs only once in the entire bible. This translation is based on the word sheinah (שֵׁנָה) = sleep, which occurs 22 times. Perhaps sheina in Psalm 127 is merely a misspelling. On the other hand, sheina could be related to shena (שְׁנָא) = changed, altered.)
The psalm’s reference to eating “the bread of suffering” alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden. There God tells Adam:
“… accursed is the earth on account of you; in suffering you shall eat from it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it will sprout for you… By the sweat of your face you will eat bread …” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Psalm 127 suggests that even if people get up early and toil away at agriculture, only sitting down late in the day, their labor might still be in vain, unless God sends the right weather for their crops. Yet those whom God loves have a different attitude. They work, but they also rest—perhaps because God helps them to change. They no longer suffer anxiety about their crops, since they find security in their own relationship with God.6
In the Garden of Eden story, God also predicts that Eve will suffer as she labors to bear children:
To the woman [God] said: “I will certainly multiply your suffering and your pregnancies; in suffering you will bear children …” (Genesis 3:16) 7
The third verse of Psalm 127 points out that childbirth can be viewed either as a hardship or as a reward.
Hey, an inheritance from God is sons;
A reward is the fruit of the womb. (Psalm 127:3)
It takes more than the two parents to make a baby. In the Torah, God is responsible for opening and closing wombs, i.e. making pregnancy possible.8
The praise of having children continues from the male point of view.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
So are the sons of youth.
Fortunate is the man
Who fills his quiver with them.
They will not be shamed
When they speak to enemies in the gate. (127:4-5)
These last two verses offer a resolution of the first verse. If you want to build a household (one meaning of bayit), you will labor in vain unless God lets you have a son. In ancient Israel and Judah, the head of a household was a man, who acquired a wife (or wives), children, and servants. His household was worthless without at least one son to inherit his land, livestock, and/or business. Sons could also defend his property if he were attacked.9 So a literal interpretation of the opening and closing of Psalm 127 is:
Unless God builds a household,
In vain do its builders labor …
Unless God opens a womb,
In vain does a man seek security.
An interpretation of Psalm 127 for our own time might be:
Unless we see God in each other,
In vain does our household exist.
Unless we want friends more than walls,
In vain do we watch out for foes. (127:1)
Unless we change suffering to love,
In vain do we work for our bread. (127:2)
From God we inherit our world;
The fruit of each womb is a gift. (127:3)
Fortunate is the human who learns
How to speak to an enemy in the gate.
Accept what life brings with a full heart,
And you will not be insecure. (127:4-5)
- Exodus 25:33-34, 37:19-20.
- Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
- Isaiah 29:20.
- Jeremiah 5:6.
- Psalm 102:8, Psalm 127:1, Job 21:32.
- “An ordinary person, once he becomes aware of this inadequacy of all human endeavor, will worry without cease; he will be driven to overtax his energies; he will lose rest and sleep, and he will be unable to enjoy the very bread he eats. But it is through this same knowledge of inadequacy of all human effort that he who is aware of God’s tender love, of His friendship, as it were (ידיד is passive, i.e., ‘beloved’), will acquire that serenity which will enable him to sleep in peace.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 2014, pp. 1049-1050.) Hirsch was a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi.
- The Hebrew words I translate as “suffering”—atzavim (עֲצָבִים) in Psalm 127:2, itzavon (עִצָּבוֹן) in Genesis 3:16 and 3:17, and etzev (עֶצֶב) in Genesis 3:16 all mean “suffering, hardship, pain, distress”. All three words come from the same root verb, atzav (עָצַב), which means “caused suffering or pain” in the kal form, and “felt distressed, anxious” in the nifil form.
- The belief that only God opens or closes a woman’s womb appears in Genesis 29:31, 30:2, and 30:22; and 1 Samuel 1:5-6.
- “The man who begets many sons in his youth creates the equivalent of a little army on which he can depend. In the social structure of ancient Israel, this may not have been an entirely fanciful notion.” (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 450)