The close of Psalm 27 —
קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.
Hope in the LORD; strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord [Psalm 27:14]
— is often cited as a motivational aphorism, particularly for the penitential season. This is its role in this meditation for Elul, for example.
Psalms 27:14 is employed in the Babylonian Talmud as a proof-text for appropriate attitude in prayer. The passage includes a discussion on prayer and hope, including — like the question Langston Hughes asks in “Harlem” — what happens to hope deferred.
Psalms 27:14 stands out in that it uses the second person (command) form, while the previous 13 verses are in the first person: “God is My light…whom should I fear?” etc. This raises the question: Whose heart is to hope?
Hope on the Journey
Joseph Rosenstein, editor of Siddur Eit Ratzon and Machzor Eit Ratzon, elaborates on Psalms 27:14, for the penitential season:
As we embark on our Elul journey of introspection
we remind ourselves
that even while we are on this journey
we are still in Your house
that even when things look the darkest
we can turn toward You
with hope and with courage
Ka-vei el Adonai
Hope in Adonai
Cha-zak v’a-meitz li-be-cha
Ka-vei el Adonai
strengthen your heart
hope in Adonai
turn to Adonai
Ka-vei el Adonai.
— J. Rosenstein, “Gather Us In: A meditation on Psalm 27 for Elul”
download the full meditation from his resource page
Earlier in Psalm 27, a thought begins in the psalmist’s heart — amar livi [my heart said] — but what the heart says is a first-person expression from God, “Seek My face”:
לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי–בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי
אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’;
Thy face, LORD, will I seek.
— 27:8, JPS 1917 translation (see Mechon-Mamre)
As the psalm closes, the perspective makes a similar shift to the second person: Either the psalmist is offering a self-pep-talk, or the command is to a fellow traveler. Most translations leave this ambiguous. “Be strong inside, and let your heart be brave!” (R. Weintraub), e.g., might be addressed to oneself or another. But Zalman Schachter-Shalomi takes his interpretation explicitly second person:
So, friend, you too, hope to Yah.
And make strong your heart!
And most of all — keep hoping to Yah
Pray and Pray Again
Psalms 27:14 is a proof-text, in the Babylonian Talmud, for describing appropriate attitudes in prayer. The same verse appears again a few verses later as support for the opinion that prayer requires “vigor” or “bolstering”…as do Torah, good deeds, and worldly occupation.
Rabbi Hama said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, ‘And I prayed unto the Lord’ [Deut. 9:26-27] and it is written afterwards, ‘And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also’ [Deut 10:10].
But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: If one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick’ [Proverbs 13:12].
What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life’ [Proverbs 13:13], and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!’ [Proverbs 3:18] — There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfillment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfillment of his prayer.
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: A person who prayed and saw that he was not answered, [should] pray again, as it is stated: “Hope in the Lord, strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord” [Psalms 27:14]
Four things require [vigor], namely, [study of] the Torah, good deeds, praying, and one’s worldly occupation.
— B. Berakhot 32b
In other words, it seems: Pray long and/or pray and pray again, without expecting the prayer to be answered; and, if hope deferred is making the heart sick, engage in Torah study.
The subsequent discussion in Berakhot 32b references Torah verses speaking of how God will not forget us, even though we are bound to sin. Perhaps this is the “remedy” of Torah study. In the context of the high holidays, it’s essential to avoid “vexation” of the heart by strengthening oneself and being courageous in the path of teshuva/return.
Langston Hughes’ musings on what happens to a dream deferred appear apt. While the “raisin in the sun” image is probably the most famous, the final lines seem to apply equally: What happens to the promise of the season, the possibility of change, if we don’t act on it?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951