Helping Us Speak to Hashem
Regular readers have probably discerned that I have a special place in my heart for passionate people – for all those filled with a sense of mission and the determination to complete that mission.
Sometimes that passion loudly proclaims itself. Other times, it is not immediately evident. Only as the person in question starts speaking about his project does it burble to the surface and then burst through from deep recesses within.
Reb Yitzchok Bell's passion is definitely of the latter sort. One's first impression is of an understated, soft-spoken Englishman of impeccable manners. As he starts speaking about his passion – Tehillim -- however, his speech remains soft, but takes on a certain urgent tone, and he is fairly pleading that the listener should comprehend what moves him.
Reb Yitzchok has produced a new, non-literal translation of Tehillim: Psalms That Speak To You. No expense has been spared to make the volume as beautiful as possible so that one's immediate impulse is to take it in hand. The arresting cover is by Ben Gasner. And like every cover by Gasner, it is absolutely unique and instantly recognizable as a cover that only he could have done. The special off-white Bible paper is at once thin and opaque for easy reading.
Reb Yitzchok secured sponsors for every psalm and for each day of the week – mostly from those who have attended his classes over the years in London and Manchester, and now Jerusalem.
The pages are absolutely clean, unencumbered by any scholarly apparatus – only the words of David HaMelech in Hebrew and the facing English translation, It is easy to cast one's eyes back and forth from the Hebrew to the precise phrase in English as necessary.
The decision not to include introductions to various psalms concerning the circumstances of King Dovid's life that gave expression to the particular psalm was deliberate. Reb Yitzchok's message is: Tehillim speak to each of us in the circumstances of our own lives, today.
And the purpose of the translation is that Tehillim be spoken, not just recited, spoken and not just studied. (The translation itself draws heavily on the commentaries of Rashi and Radak and other classical commentators.)
Reb Yitzchok describes his mother as a woman who "spoke to the Ribbono shel Olam," and doing so is his deepest desire as well. One of his first published translations was a volume entitled Between me and You, a selection of prayers written by Rabbi Noson Sternharz with the aim of putting the concepts of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav's Likutei Moharan into tefillos.
Tehillim always seemed to Reb Yitzchok the logical medium for speaking to Hashem – the connecting point between "the Torah and my personal tefillah." But for that to happen he had to understand what the words meant, and too often he found the Lashon HaKodesh impenetrable and the English translations archaic. Like so many others, he could read the words of Tehillim, as a religious duty or for the merit of someone who was sick, but not as an expression of his own soul.
Psalms That Speak To You began as a personal attempt to make Tehillim accessible and relevant to him. But the more he became involved with Tehillim over decades the greater his feeling of their power and desire to help others access that power as well.
Prior to making aliyah, Reb Yitzchok was a successful commercial lawyer in England. But with every promotion, including to partner in a large law firm, he took his pay raise not in money but in more days off from work, until he was working only three days a work by the end of his career.
Besides his Torah learning and translation, he also trained as a marriage counselor and helped an exclusively Jewish clientele without fee. That counseling opened him up to ways in which the words of Tehillim speak to the full range of human emotion and can provide the hope and direction that we too often lack by enhancing our closeness to Hashem.
I am unqualified to evaluate Psalms That Speak To You as a translation, except to say that the psalms read fluently and are easily comprehended. But others who have reviewed the volume and are qualified to pass judgment on the translation and its author have written effusively of both. Dayan Yitzchok Berger, the senior dayan of the Manchester Beth Din, wrote, "I am confident that it will become the standard translation in the English-speaking world." And Dayan Yonason Abraham predicted the work will "revolutionize the Tehillim experience for the English-speaking community." (A series of translations of the translation into other languages is in progress.)
Now that I know the author and have had the pleasure of saying Tehillim using his translation, I'm confident that Tehillim will occupy a much larger place in my own spiritual/emotional universe. As Rabbi Eytan Feiner puts it, Reb Yitzchok "is a unique individual who warmly invites the reader to join him on his quest for spiritual growth," and has in the process opened up the world of "our greatest king and master poet."
A Full and Complete Spiritual Being
The late Oliver Sacks was a man of science – a neurologist by profession. But he was also a great humanist. As it becomes ever more increasingly fashionable to talk about the quality of life and to assign different values to human beings according to the assumed quality of their lives, Sacks provides an invaluable corrective.
In his most famous collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks includes a number of moving portraits of the simple. One of those is Rebecca, an Orthodox Jewish girl being raised by her grandmother, after the death of her parents when she was three.
At 19, Rebecca has never learned to dress herself, without mixing up front and back, left and right, etc. She has never learned to read and is hopelessly uncoordianted. She does not know how to read, and her IQ tests around 60. "[Rebecca] was painfully shy and withdrawn, feeling that she was, and had always been, a figure of fun," writes Dr. Sacks.
She loves going to shul, "where she too was loved (and seen as a child of G-d . . . .)" And she "fully understood the liturgy, the chants, rites and symbols of which the Orthodox service consists. When her beloved grandmother, passes away, she sits shivah and "conducts herself with great dignity," despite being devastated. "Grannie's all right," she tells Dr. Sacks, "she's going to the Long Home." But as for herself, "I'm so cold. It's not outside, its winter inside. She was part of me. Part of me died with her."
In her mourning, she was "tragic and complete. There was absolutely no sense then of her being 'mental defective.'" After a half an hour, this young woman, whom Dr. Sacks has come to think of as "an idiot Ecclesiastes," gathers herself, and tells him: "It's winter. I feel dead. But I know the spring will come again."
Rebecca understands herself and her needs. She rejects the remedial classes offered to improve her cognitive functioning: "I want no more classes, no more workshops. They do nothing for me. They do nothing to bring me together." To explain herself, she looks down at Dr. Sacks' rug, and offers this arresting metaphor: "I'm like a sort of living carpet. I need a pattern, a design, like you have on a carpet. I come apart, I unravel, unless there is a design." When offered a drama class instead, she leaps at the opportunity, and excels.
Dr. Sacks comes to question the utility of all the remedial classes, which drive his clients "full-tilt upon their limitations, . . . often to the point of cruelty." He realizes that he and his colleagues pay far too much attention to their defects and too little to what is intact or preserved.
True, at one level, Rebecca is a "mass of handicaps and incapacities, with the intense frustrations and anxieties attendant on these." "At that level, she was, and felt herself to be, a mental cripple."
"But at some deeper level there was no sense of incapacity, but a feeling of calm and completeness, of being fully alive, of being a soul, deep and high, and equal to all others. Intellectually, then Rebecca felt a cripple; spiritually she felt herself a full and complete being."