The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber collected in a book the stories of the Hassidim, those fervent Jews in Ukraine and Poland who, beginning in 1735, created a spiritual movement based on close inner experience of God. In his book, Tales of the Hassidim (1949), he tells the following story of Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev, which reveals the importance of the psalms in people’s lives:
One day on the eve of the Day of Atonement, the rabbi of Berditchev waited for a while before going to the pulpit to read the prayers and walked back and forth in the House of Prayer. In a corner he found a man crouched on the floor and weeping.
When he questioned him, the man replied: “Up to a short time ago I had all good things, and now I am wretched. Rabbi, I lived in a village and no hungry man went from my door unfed. My wife used to bring home poor wayfarers she met on the road, and see to their needs. And then He comes along”-here the man pointed toward the sky-“takes my wife and my house from one day to the next.
There I was with six small children, without a wife, without a house! And I had a thick prayer book, and all the psalms were in it in just the right order; you didn’t have to hunt around, and that burned up along with everything else. Now you tell me, Rabbi, can I forgive Him?”
The zaddik had them look for a prayer book like the one the man described. When it was brought, the man began to turn the pages to see if everything was in the correct sequence, and the rabbi of Berditchev waited the while. Finally he asked: “Do you forgive Him now?” “Yes,” said the man. The rabbi went up to the pulpit and began to sing. The man joined in, consoled because he had regained the book of psalms. He knew that there he would find strength to go on living even without his wife and his house. The lesson of this story is so clear that any commentary is superfluous.
Finally, the psalms are highly expressive religious and mystical poems. Like any poetry, they re-create reality with metaphors and images drawn from the imagination, which obeys its own logic, a logic different from the logic of rationality. Through the imagination we transfigure situations and facts, detecting in them hidden signs and divine messages. That is why we say that we do not dwell in the world in prose alone, drawing the plain meaning from the routine unfolding of events.
We also inhabit the world poetically, seeing the other side of things and another world of beauty and enchantment within the world. The psalms teach us to dwell poetically in reality, which is then transmuted into a great sacrament of God, full of wisdom, of warnings, and of lessons that make our journey toward the Source more secure.