Selah: A Word to Live By

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(Author’s Note: This essay and poem were originally published on American Public Media’s On Being blog)

When I lived in Israel, the air felt denser, heavier. In such a small space, words (and worlds) piled up with such intensity, you felt yourself using muscles you didn’t know you had, straining to make sense of all the war and death and beauty contained in the land.

I think that is why, years later, when I finally read the Psalms, the word selah held such meaning for me. Its original definition is unknown, but there is some agreement that selah signifies a moment of reflection, an invitation to “weigh” or “measure” the singer’s words.

For me, selah is a prayer within a prayer. It means “may the ears hear and the eyes see.” It is a word that asks us to stop and listen, really listen, to the song.

Psalm

(on the road from Tel Aviv to Ramallah)

On this, first morning of my life,
hosannas are not enough.

I walk and walk,

up streets with Jewish names,
down streets with Arab names —

all in celebration of great poets
or killers.

Men who were both poets and killers.
May my pen draw blood and pour wine.

I walk through old monuments,
tombs of alabaster, car soot.

Slogans half hid
behind green bombs of melon,

grenades of black and purple grapes.

In the end, who will history anoint?
I forget who was Isaac, who Ishmael.

I walk and walk,
forgetting my own language, my alphabet,

the one carried by Phoenicians
from port to port —

trading letters aleph bet

that were rounded like stones
by a lapidist alif ba

and passed from mouth to mouth
until they lost all but essence a b

and continue to be worn and smoothed,
until, as jewels,

only their memory is left —

as I limp through harbours,
the bilge of refugees —

in this, last moment of the day,

when the sky burns purple
and the ocean breaks black,

when the streetlamps tremble and,
all around,

the noise of guns and worship —

Selah. Enough.

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