With gratitude to Rabbi Andi Fliegel
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He restoreth my soul.
He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Though preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Thou hast anointed my head with oil.
My cup runneth over
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Except, perhaps, for the Shma the twenty-third Psalm was the first prayer I ever learned.
Throughout my public school years (grades 1-8 at Ashland School, East Orange, NJ) each morning began with a Psalm read by one of us students.
The Twenty-third Psalm was by far the most popular selection although some readers chose number 117 because it was the shortest of all the 150 Psalms in the book.
Without even realizing it, I memorized the words in the King James translation that we read in school.
As a rabbi, I invoked Psalm 23 at many funerals pointing out that, “Few words have brought more comfort to more people than these thoughts attributed to King David as he sat among the Judean hills some 3000 years ago.” For that reason I also include Psalm 23 as part of the Yizkor ritual on Yom Kippur.
Yes, I employed these verses frequently, but the Psalm only attached itself to my heart in the anxiety I felt leading up to and following my aortic valve replacement in 1996.
I had recently read The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson, which offers a simple four-step guide to meditative relaxation:
- A quiet atmosphere
- A comfortable position
- A mental device
- A passive attitude
Dr. Benson’s formula would get me through open-heart surgery both in 1996 and 2012. It would also sustain me during a life-threatening strep infection that centered in my left hip in 2016 and following my painful rotary cuff repair in 2018.
For my “go to” mental device I decided to memorize the twenty-third Psalm, so familiar to me in King James English, in the original Hebrew.
And now, as the Days of Awe approach in this unprecedented time of Covid-19 I find ever-greater meaning in these words although some of them are counter intuitive.
Vickie and I have walked though the sheep fields outside of Husum, Germany, where sheep seem to outnumber people, near the North Sea.
What my eyes and nose beheld made it abundantly clear to me that lying down in those green pastures was the last thing I would want to do.
And yet as is the case with biblical narratives, we must escape the literal to embrace the exquisite metaphor the Psalm offers us.
The idea that God takes care of our needs and offers comfort in times of trouble has great appeal. I marvel that through all the horrors history has imposed on our people, the idea still resonates.
That even after the Shoah we can recite and on some level believe those words is a miracle to me. And yet, we can and we do.
Instead of blaming the Eternal One for society’s ills, we turn to God for comfort and the strength to bear what seems unbearable.
Certainly for me, when my pain and fear are very great, the Psalm reminds me, “My cup runneth over,” and I count my many blessings.
.The Prophet Zechariah (9:12), active in a time of calamitous upheaval, calls the Jewish people “Prisoners of Hope.” For me the 23rd Psalm is the embodiment of that idea.
“Yea though I walk thought the valley of the shadow of death,” I trust in God’s presence and God’s protective care.
At the same time I express the hope that “I shall dwell in the ”House of the Lord forever.”
According to biblical and subsequent Jewish thought, “dwelling in God’s House” is a privilege we should seek to earn, not a right to which we are born. As Professor Robert Alter points out in his commentary on Psalms (Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2007, Kindle loc. 2234), “ . . . the privilege of enjoying God’s presence in the Jerusalem sanctuary is a consequence of having followed the ways that God dictates to humanity.”
At this sacred season of the year we acknowledge that we often fail to meet God’s expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves.
One of my favorite stories tells of a Monarch’s son who was estranged from his father. He journeyed far away from his home. The father, longing for his son, “sent a message, “Return to your father.”
The son replied, “I cannot. The distance is too great.”
Replied the father, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you. (Pesikta Rabati, Shuva Yisrael)
Especially during times of pain and fear, Psalm 23 has been my mantra.
Even in the face of death, God will comfort me; God will restore my soul.
For my part, though, I must strive to be worthy of God’s favor. I must do my utmost to fulfill my covenantal responsibilities as God articulated them to Abraham:
Be a Blessing. (Genesis 12:2)
Follow God’s teachings. (Genesis 17:1)
Bring justice and righteousness into the world. (Genesis 18:19)
But when I fall short – as I often do — of fulfilling those sacred obligations, I trust, God will meet me halfway, and, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”