|Ask Rabbi Lerner|
Why do Jews turn to the book of Tehillim in times of need? What is it's inherent value?
I have two different answers to your question, and I hope that one or both is helpful. It's not an easy question to answer, and there will be
different answers depending upon one's theology. I'm speaking for myself.
First of all, the psalms are magnificent statements of praise to God. They often begin with a description of despair and then conclude with hope and joy. The recitation of such encouraging texts is uplifting, spiritually fulfilling and promises a better day tomorrow no matter how distraught we are today.
In fact, since the book of Psalms contains such a range of human emotions that it is virtually impossible to not find a psalm or two that resonates how each of us feels at any one particular time or situation. In that instance, in reading the Psalms we know that we are not the first to feel as we do, that this is not the first time in human and Jewish history people have felt these feelings, and that knowledge can give us hope and support. Above all, when we or someone we love is in pain, ill, threatened or doubt, we long for a relationship with a Higher Power, with God, with a strength that is greater than our own. We turn to God and find the wonderful and helpful wording of the phrases that lead us to God, to our sense of renewal of our covenant with God.
Secondly, over the course of the ages, especially in the Middle Ages, there arose a popular form of magic in which knowledge of the secret names, words and/or texts would work wonders - even magic. There developed a belief that the Psalms contained these magical properties to protect and to heal, including a medieval work "Shimushei Tehillim," (The Uses of Psalms) describing which words, verses or chapters of Psalms; and these "healers" would also use other portions of the Hebrew Bible.
I do believe that while the "magic" - in all its forms - is indeed not effective, that God is beyond our manipulation and control, nonetheless the sense of being in control can support a person who otherwise feels "out of control" and desperate.
Above all, the saying of Psalms can certainly never hurt provided that anyone who is ill gets the best medical assistance as soon as possible; we can never substitute prayer to God for good medicine. As one of my teachers said: You do the best that you possibly can as a human being; then you leave the rest to God, and not the reverse.
May you always recite Tehillim as part of the daily or Shabbat service in praise to God and be spared the times of need.
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
Foundation for Family Education (FFFE)