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    abstract artistic interpretation of Psalm 27:5 in black, gold, and white

    Light and Deliverance

    Today Psalm 27 has special significance to many Jews at Yom Kippur, but it has given voice to the prayers of people in other times and places as well.

    By Atar Hadari

    October 4, 2022

    Psalm 27
    By David

    The Lord is my light and my deliverance – who should I fear?
    The Lord is my life’s fortress – who should I dread?
    When the wicked get close to me to eat my flesh
    My oppressors and enemies – they failed and fell.
    If a siege besiege me around – my heart will not fear
    If a war rises against me in this I trust:
    One thing I asked of God – that’s all I seek
    To sit in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
    To behold the sweetness of the Lord and visit his redoubt;
    That he secrete me in his hut on a day of trouble
    Hide me in the hollow of his tent – raise me on the rock:
    But now my head will rise over all my enemies around
    And I’ll offer in his tent triumphal toasts – I’ll sing and carol to the Lord:
    Hear, Lord, my voice, I call – favor me and answer:
    To you my heart said: “Seek my presence” – your presence Lord I seek:
    Do not secrete your face from me – do not shrug in pique at your servant.
    You’ve been my ally – don’t leave me behind and don’t abandon me, God my deliverer.
    For my father and mother abandoned me – but the Lord took me in.
    Instruct me Lord in your road and guide me on the right path in light of my pursuers;
    Don’t deliver me to my enemies’ wrath
    For false witnesses rose against me to whisper violence:
    Were it not that I have faith to see the good of God in the land of the living –
    Hope for the Lord – be strong and stout of heart – and hope for the Lord.

    (author’s translation)

    This psalm is said by Sephardi Jews during afternoon and evening prayers every day of the year, but by Ashkenazi Jews only during one season beginning with the month of Elul and ending with Yom Kippur. Also known as Hoshanna Rabbah, the seventh day of Tabernacles, this day is considered the last chance of repentance, the last moment to be absolved of your sins before your fate for the coming year (or your life) is sealed.

    The Midrash Tehillim, an eleventh-century collection of rabbinic stories devoted to psalms, connects the opening line’s reference to both light and deliverance to the High Holy Days: “My light is on Rosh Hashanah which is the day of judgement (for it says in Psalm 37:6 ‘Bring out your justice like light and your judgement at noon’) and my deliverance is Yom Kippur – that he should deliver us and forgive us for all our sins.”

    But it was the prayer book of Rabbi Shabbatai of Rashkov (1655–1745) that established this Ashkenazi custom. Drawing on the Midrash Tehillim, Rashkov connects the psalm to the period of Elul because “this song contains thirteen mentions of the name of God” and “at the start of Elul thirteen measures of mercy open and are revealed and shine down, and by saying this song we may annul from us all the prosecutors before the court on high.”

    For every name of God, the noted Kabbalist encourages us, we may hope for an equal measure of mercy. But opinions have varied over the centuries about what exactly David means by what he asks of God in this psalm and therefore what we hope for when we say it. Christian commentators have taken it in an entirely different direction but also echoed a lot of the hopes both personal and communal expressed by Jews when saying this psalm at this time of year.

    Two centuries before the custom of saying this psalm in Elul began, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno (1475–1550) argued that David said it “when fleeing Saul, so he would not fall into his hands or the hands of idol worshippers and not learn from their deeds when among them.” That is a very earthbound interpretation: it sees no cosmic significance in the verses and hence no reason for anyone to hang their hopes of divine forgiveness upon it.

    Writing after the custom of saying the psalm in this season had begun, Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (1809–1879), better known by his acronym the Malbim, hung his analysis on the middle of the psalm – the wish to dwell in the house of the Lord. Jewish commentators have differed about what that means exactly, but he asserts: “This song explains that divine providence of the individual is attracted by cleaving to the Lord, and whoever cleaves to Him – continual divine providence will cleave to him and keep him safe from all injuries.”

    abstract artistic interpretation of Psalm 27:5 in black, gold, and white

    Mark Lawrence, Psalm 27:5. Day Of Trouble

    According to the Malbim it’s not about Saul or any earthly dangers at all, but only relates to earthly distractions that may interfere with David’s stated desire for the presence of God: “He prays that the Lord help him with this cleaving and remove from him all the impediments that make him cease from this great matter which is the essence of his joy and his supplication.”

    But what is that presence and what does David mean by the house of God and dwelling in it? This dichotomy between earthly and theological explanations is seen more frequently the nearer to the present we come.

    The Aramaic translation known as Targum Jonathan is attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel, a student of Hillel the Elder, hence a contemporary of Jesus and Herod in Roman-occupied Judea. That targum translates “sit in the Lord’s house” as “sit in the Temple of the Lord.” At that time it was clear the Lord had a house and if you wanted to sit in such a place you clearly meant that one.

    But by the time of the medieval French rabbi Rashi (1040–1105), the house becomes much more of a synagogue. He interprets the line “visit his redoubt” as a visit “every morning and every evening,” which is to say for morning and evening prayers.

    A mere half-century later, the grammarian Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) takes this notion in a totally mystical direction much nearer to Shabbatai of Rashkov, asserting that what David asks for is “that he have time to visit and seek the different minds that are heavenly angels that the soul is cut from and to which it shall return.” This is rather a long way from hoping to be delivered from the hands of Saul!

    But the most eloquent expression of the mystical school in the modern era is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), who led a secessionist Orthodox community in Frankfurt am Main and is considered an intellectual founder of modern Orthodox Judaism. A century after the custom of saying this psalm was instituted by Shabbatai of Rashkov, Rabbi Hirsch roundly rejects any connection with an earthly temple, animal sacrifice, or even a particular house:

    Clearly it doesn’t mean actual residence in the house of the Lord. Even the Priests were not in the Temple permanently. This expression therefore comes to state rather a view of life and fulfilment of an aim for a sanctified life, by means of which every single person becomes a home for the Lord. …

    Even the actual building of the Temple does not fulfil its purpose aside from Exodus 25:8 (“make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you”). Only by recognising the purity and dedication learned there do our lives progress beyond the walls of the Temple in this measure, that the Lord’s presence is not confined any longer just in the Temple but shall be with us in every place, and accompany us always. …

    “All the days of my life” – not those few hours we’re present in the domain of the actual redoubt of the Lord, but that in every place and any time my aim is to live and settle permanently in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, and by my “settling” I’ll be still even at times of excessive excitement. …

    The “sweetness of the Lord” is the glory of a man’s life being shaped by the Lord. …

    This means that in every place where the Law of the Lord is kept with force and purity and in accordance with those aims, there earthly life becomes a chariot for the Divine Presence and there is created for the Blessed One a dwelling place below.

    This is a very expansive and more than mystical interpretation of the psalm than even Rabbi Rashkov could have aspired to in asking us to use it as a means to forgiveness. Rabbi Hirsch sees the work of repentance as extending to the entire world, making the entire earth a fitting home for the Lord by continual focus on his aims.

    If I may extend Rabbi Hirsch’s metaphor, I would say that the impediments the Malbim sees David asking the Lord to help him remove are his own sins, and that by continual repentance what we dissolve are the obstacles between us and the Lord. If you continually confess and dissolve anything that is on your mind and obtruding between you and the Lord, you can indeed see the sweetness of the Lord in every place, and every place does indeed become the house of God and you may dwell in it all your days.

    The Anglican theologian Susan Gillingham notes in her magisterial Psalms through the Centuries (2008) that Christian interpretation of this psalm begins with the Septuagint’s insertion of the title pro tu christhenai (“before the anointing”) and “thus raising the question as to which anointing is being referred to.” Christian interpreters from Cassiodorus (485–585) onward saw the psalm as referring to the anointed Jesus, rather than David, because Saul had died long before David’s anointing at Hebron so it could not be talking about David. (David was previously anointed in secret by Samuel, but I do not argue with theologians.) Syrian Christians notably got around this argument by saying the psalm referred to the anointed king Hezekiah and the threat of the Assyrians and his illness. This is still an interpretation as earthbound as that of the early Jewish commentators.

    What I find more interesting is that Christian liturgy has also focused on the personal battle with darkness expressed in the psalm. Gillingham notes that “it is sung by the newly baptized in the Orthodox Church,” also on the Eve of the Epiphany and on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The verse about false witnesses has been read in the light of the Good Friday narrative and trial leading to the passion. Yet the psalm retains an emotional and personal resonance in contemporary Roman Catholic liturgy, with the verse “The Lord is my light and salvation” used during Epiphany, the inference being the giving of light to the Gentiles. This psalm is also used for funerals in Catholic, Methodist, and Anglican traditions, and often used at the Feast of the Holy Family, with verse 4 about the visit to the Temple being seen as referring to Jesus being found by his parents at the Temple.

    A rather different and more earthbound early modern Christian interpreter was Henry VIII (1491–1547) whose Psalter of Henry VIII includes an image of David fighting Goliath just before Psalm 27 and adds marginal notes by verses 11–12 (“my head will rise over all my enemies”) to personally affirm David’s conviction that God would protect him. Hence you can see Henry VIII, the only monarch I know of who composed his own theological treatise in Latin in his own hand, taking exactly the same view as his contemporary Rabbi Sforno – that David was talking about earthly enemies and an earthly house.

    But both Jewish interpreters and Christian liturgy have left those early modern practical men behind. Like Rabbi Hirsch, the modern Christian liturgy sees this psalm as referring to a new life, the life that goes on after the individual’s parents have left him. It is not about one house and one set of enemies, but about the light that fills the entire world at this time of year – and, if you are fortunate and keep on repenting, the whole year round.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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