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Tehillim — The Perfect Gift

In trying to find just the right gift for Michael Ignatieff, the power of the Book of Psalms was proven once again for me.

On Saturday evening, February 10th, Professor Ignatieff will teach us about how the Psalms were first spoken to address a complicated world and how they still speak to us today, in a world no less complicated.  The ancient Psalmist searched inwardly and outwardly for God’s moral call amidst the clamor of human voices.  Ignatieff has turned to the poetry of the Biblical Psalms for insight into the age-old questions — Where is the morality in power? And where is the power in morality?

So how can we thank Professor Ignatieff for his teaching?  He already has the scholarly editions of Psalms – Sarna, Altar, Berlin and Brettler.  So I searched on-line for rare volumes of Psalms.  Which might be meaningful for him to hold in his hands and add to his vast library?

As he is now the President and Rector of the Central European University in Budapest, a thin little volume originally from Hungary caught my eye.  Its browning pages testify to its age – more than one hundred years.  The cross on its black leather cover makes we wonder who prayed from this book of Psalms.  Was it used by a leader of the church to guide his people in prayers?  Or did it belong in a private home?  Perhaps a faithful woman prayed from it each night before sleep.

Michael Ignatieff has researched and written much about the Holocaust – the politics and policies that gave rise to it and moral breakdown that allowed for it.  The second rare book of Psalms to catch my attention was a thin prayerbook written in Hebrew and Yiddish.  It was among the first books printed specifically for the Holocaust survivors living in the Fohrenwald Displaced Person Camp.  For some survivors, the greatest symbol of a return to life was a prayerbook.  For some, the greatest expression of liberation and the most restorative act of Jewish dignity was to raise up one’s voice again and chant Tehillim.  Who held this book in his brittle hands?  Or was it shared and passed around the camp day and night so many people would have a chance to be uplifted by these treasured words of fear and faith?

I can’t wait for these two volumes to arrive — the first from the U.S., the second from England.   If only these books could talk.  What stories of heartbreak and heroism, compassion and courage might they tell?  And when I wrap them together in one ribbon, how might they speak to one another?  If anyone can imagine, it’s Michael Ignatieff.  I look forward to sharing them with him on February 10th.   I hope you will join me.

The sermon I give at the 5:00 pm service that Shabbat afternoon, will be an introduction to Psalms. Until then, enjoy this gift of Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes unto the mountains…”) by the Jewish Italian composer Salamone Rossi (1570-1630).  This beautiful rendition was performed two years ago in Budapest.


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  • Melville Olsberg

    I cannot think of a more appropriate gift for Michael Ignatieff than the two volumes you specify. In times of personal strees. I leaf through Tehillim and find solace in that. resort to leafing through the various Psalms that speak to me at that time. When travelling I always have a miniature copy with me too.

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