Part of the early morning warm-up for prayers — along with awareness of our blessings and awakening body, soul, and mind — is moving from what Mishkan T’filah [Reform prayerbook] calls “self-fulfillment” to “social imperatives of community.” And that means beginning to move through the individual joys and concerns that we brought with us to a communal awareness — of each other and the world beyond these walls.
…To me it’s a little ironic that Mishkan T’filah editors discuss this in the introduction but don’t include my favorite way to accomplish this — the psalms — in the prayerbook proper….
Psalm 30 in particular, on the handout (Psalms Handout; see below), is a great vehicle for moving through our personal laments and dancing, shaken-ness and solidity, as we become aware of participating in thousands of years and millions upon millions of voices crying out and healing, praising without ceasing.
In this season of Elul, Psalm 27 is also recited, asking God to help us feel the divine presence as we seek to return to ourselves, as individuals and as a People in the new year.
And, finally, I repeat a teaching I learned earlier this summer about the nearness of all we need — like the water right in front of the deer in Psalm 42 — and how it is, even still, for us to experience what sustains us. We do, after all, have to become vulnerable, if only for moment.
Note: Please note that Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s first name contains a typo on this handout, PsalmsAugust22. My apologies.
See also, “Morning: Blessing, with Echo of Gunshots.”
“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.
But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….
This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:
“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)
I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
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?
Psalm 27 includes a powerful “single request,” one that is frequently offered as a song:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ
— Psalms 27:4, JPS 1917, borrowed from Mechon-Mamre
full translation at Mechon-Mamre; others linked here
For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.
Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
Two Sources for Basic Commentary
—Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]
—Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.
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].