Written by Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu
This doesn’t feel like a time for singing, but we have to eat! There is a psalm that is sung at the beginning of grace after meals on the festivals and each week on Shabbat. It’s really a poem. It expresses the feeling of being caught in dream; returning to Jerusalem after our exile in Babylon. Our mouths were full of song, but the memory of a time of weeping is still fresh.
“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy,
Though he goes along weeping, he is carrying a bag of seeds.
He will comeback with song
Carrying his sheaves.“ Ps 126:5-6
The Hebrew is more beautiful, but this song speaks to the moment. It was written at the end of our exile, when we came home again. The tears we have wept become part of our sowing; seeds we carried with us, each with their own bag.
The medieval thinker Rabbi David Kimchi (RaDaK) of Provence describes them as tears of fear. Seed, he says, is precious; will it grow in the dryness of the earth? God will bring the gentle rain that fills up the watercourses in the wilderness, in the dry lands of exile. And seeds, he says, are actions to which we commit. In the language of Jewish action, they are mitzvot.
Seeds germinate life. They grow through love, care, and attention; they are hardy and survive adversity.
It is the way of the world to sow in tears and to reap in laughter. Seeds can survive for a very long time, without even being planted in the earth.
The journey of this psalm is from joy to pain to joy again. Once upon a time, it was chanted together with the other Songs of Ascent, three times a year, on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Or by priests as they processed up the Temple’s outer steps. None of these poems speak only of joy. All touch on loss, because loss is foundational to us. This makes them relevant at a time like this. This is now a time for weeping.
I believe that this psalm became part of grace after meals because it links sowing with the harvest. Who can know how much of the grain we eat was sown in misery? We will never be free of grief. But at the same time we, and all peoples, must eat. And so once again, in our painful Jewish history, we sing of our waking dream, of mouths filled with song, of coming home again.