I have gained so much from the teaching of Psalms during quarantine. Examining the familiar words and taking the time to prepare my own English translations has revealed the artistry of each Psalm. Words are carefully chosen and are often repeated to create a weave of key ideas and surprises. As great poetry, my students and I have seen how those words may even lead to opposite translations due to the ambiguity of language. And more, sometimes double meanings are purposeful to evoke varying emotions in the same moment.
Psalm 41 concludes the first of the five books of Psalms. Psalm one and Psalm forty-one both begin with the same word, Ashrei, Happy. In Psalm one, happy is the person who avoids the company of the wicked and gains guidance from Torah. Psalm forty-one begins, “Happy is the person who considers the lowly,” as if the trajectory of Book One is from ideas to instill goodness to acting with kindness.
Psalm 41 repeats a theme: the pain caused by deceitful enemies. But the ultimate plea to God in regard to those who “hate me with whispers” is subject to two opposite understandings, namely revenge or reconciliation. Both possibilities are contained in verse 11 and the Hebrew word “Ve’ashalmah.” In the whole of Hebrew Scripture, this is the only time that this exact word is used. And yet, its root is shalom, familiarly meaning “wholeness.” Whether the wholeness sought is “payback” or “peace” is unclear and both are found in the commentaries.