Psalm 27 is filled with foes and fear, betrayal and destruction. Many teachers suggest that the foes are (also) within us, as we struggle with the work of teshuvah [repentance, return] in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. This is the perspective of Joseph Rosenstein, translator of Siddur Eit Ratzon,* who has wars raging “around me, and within me” in verse 3 and turmoil “around and within me” in verse 11.
Psalm 27 is also full of comfort, particularly shelter: “Adonai is the strength of my life” (27:1), despite raging wars “You are with me” (27:3), God offers a “sukkah [shelter] during terrible times,” a tent for hiding from disaster (27:5), and “will always gather me in” (27:10). While God may provide shelter for the lost and frightened, however, the real lesson of Psalm 27 seems to be that we have to learn to ask for directions.
A powerful plea for permanent shelter — “only one thing I ask…to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life” (27:4) — is answered with the promise of perpetual instruction (27:10-11):
Though my father and mother will leave me [ki avi v’immi azavuni]
You will always gather me in [v’Adonai yaasfeini]
Teach me Your way, Adonai [horeini YHVH darkhekha]
guide me to walk straight on Your path, [u’n’cheini b’orach mi-shor]
despite all the turmoil, around and within me [l’maan shor’rai].
“Gather Me” and Directions
It is possible to read verse 10 as a simple statement of fate: As we age, it is more likely that we are facing the world without living parents. It’s the natural order of things that “father and mother will leave me.” However, individuals of any age might experience parents who are unavailable for all sorts of reasons, including death. A young child with living guardians will nonetheless be in positions in which “father and mother will leave” the child to his or her own devices. Even in the most ideal circumstances, we are all, finally, without active parental guidance for most of our lives….
…which is where God’s guidance comes in.
The psalmist says that God will “gather us in,” and follows this immediately with a request for teaching and help on the path. During this time of teshuvah, Psalm 27, reminds us that it’s natural to be in need of help and that God’s teaching is the help we need.
During the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, we are asked to imagine that the Gates of Mercy are closing. This is often perceived as some kind of “hurry up and repent” threat. Another way of consider the closing gates is this: “Look! God offered guidance on the path and, despite turmoil around and within, it’s okay to close the gates — everyone made it home.”
For more on Psalm 27 and God’s guidance, please see this (first ever) Song Every Day video —
Prayer Movement Notes
The video above shows a version of Bea Wattenberg’s “V’ahavta [You shall love…],” expanded to include Psalm 27 and another text associated with the holidays: Exodus 34:6-7, which is recited during the Torah service on festivals. All three are related — in my mind, at least — to the idea of “asking directions” and “God’s guidance.” The technique of developing movements based on one text and then using those movements with another text is one I learned from the Dance Exchange.
Bea Wattenberg, then teaching with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, said she developed the movement for “V’ahavta” after happening upon someone preparing for morning prayers outdoors. She incorporated the wrapping movements of donning a tallit [prayer shawl] and laying tefillin as well as other concepts suggested by the text: Deut. 6:5-9, recited in the morning and evening prayers.
Bea used a three-fingered hand-shape — representing the letter shin — as the “sign” upon the hand, between the eyes, on the doorpost and on the gates in the V’ahavta. The shin appears on the box of the head tefillin and stands for “Shaddai,” one of God’s names. The prayer movement also includes receiving Torah; holding a Torah scroll, putting it on a table and opening it for reading; gathering the words and putting them on “the heart”; and passing the words along to the next generation. The “laying of tefillin” includes winding the strap around the upper arm three times and then wrapping seven times along the lower arm.
I made two innovations from the way Bea taught the movements: Bea began with a tallit being placed on the shoulders, but I — and many other Jews — wrap the tallit first around my head before settling it on my shoulders, so I added that movement. In addition, in order to keep track of the seven windings, I added the hand-shapes of American Sign Language for the numbers 1-6. The hand-shape for “six” being identical to Bea’s “shin,” I hold the “six/shin” for the final wrap.
* Please see Source Materials for full citations and more details.