In his book The Lord is My Shepherd Rabbi Harold Kushner analyzes the psalm line by line. I would like instead to break it into passages and analyze each of them with an eye towards understanding what the author might have meant when writing these words, what the words mean to me, and how I believe they can help us in our work of Teshuvah. I begin with the familiar opening passage:
The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me to lie down in green pastures, God leads me beside the still waters, and God restores my soul. God guides me in straight paths for God’s name’s sake.
The pastoral image of the shepherd which sets the scene for the psalm was surely one of comfort for our ancestors. They were nomadic, pastoral people and they knew well that shepherds were dedicated to caring for their flock. Each sheep mattered. In fact, we read in a midrash that God chose Moses lead the people because he went after a single lamb in his flock that had gone astray. When God saw this, God knew that Moses was the right man to care for the people. After all, he cared for each individual sheep, just as God cared for each individual human being.
We are comforted by knowing that God cares for each of us. Yet, how can this manifest itself in our daily life? The next line provides an answer: I shall not want. But we all want, don’t we? We all desire. We all crave. We all yearn. Yet that is not what the psalm is saying. For the actual Hebrew can more accurately be translated as “I shall lack nothing,” or as Kushner simply states it … “what more could I need?” Even if we may not have everything that we may want or need, in a more material sense, God’s presence in one’s life makes one feel blessed. Who could ask for anything more?
The pastoral imagery of the psalm continues as the reader is greeted by a scene of serenity and tranquility wherein we are led beside still, soothing, calming waters and where we can simply lie down on the soft grass and enjoy God’s world. Of course, water is the source of life in so many ways. Water gives us life and sustains us even more than food. Yet, we know that water can also be destructive. Therefore, it is significant that the waters in the psalm are still waters. We all know how calming and serene it can be sitting by a lake and just watching the water. This is also what we can feel when we realize that we are in God’s presence.
It is because of God’s presence in my life that our soul is restored. Just as the Torah tells us (and we sing on Shabbat in V’shamru) ‘shavat va’yinafash – God rested and God’s soul was renewed, so too our soul is revived and renewed with the realization of God’s presence. The soul is what makes us different from the animal world. It is what provides us with the knowledge of good and evil; it enables us to make more and ethical decision. And if God is the source of the soul, then recognizing God’s presence and allowing ourselves to be at one with God has the effect of restoring our soul, our connection to God, all of humanity and the universe.
If God has restored our soul, then of course we can only be led on straight paths. Right? Well, not exactly. For the Hebrew phrase maaglei tzedek does not really mean straight paths. A better translation would perhaps be ‘round about paths that are straight, or righteous.’ In other words, don’t be tricked by your ego into thinking “God is with me, I can make no misstep or do no wrong. I can only walk the straight and narrow” For the ego is the adversary of the soul – and God. The ego wants you to think that it’s all about you. However, the reality is that our path in life is never straight or perfect. We veer off in different directions, sometimes even wreaking havoc when we do. Yet, we learn more about oneself and one’s relationship to God through these circuitous routes. After all, the Israelites wandered in circles in the desert for 40 years not because they didn’t have a map, but because they needed the time to learn, grow, mature and experience life before they could enter the Promised Land. So too, we each need to take our circuitous routes in order to grow and learn so that we can each enter our Promised Land … the place where we feel at home and in relationship with God. Of course, even once in the Promised Land, the people still rebelled, complained, and worshipped other gods. Yet, God was always with them. It is not so much that God intentionally leads us on these roundabout routes. Rather, they are simply a natural part of life’s course, and God shepherds us along them, trying to help us find within ourselves the ability to return to the path of righteousness. We may only be on that path for a moment, and then veer off again, but God is always there guiding us and helping us to return.
Why does God do this? We are told l’maan shmo, for the sake of God’s name!” Does this mean the author believed that God does it because God wants to take credit! Is this all about showing others how powerful God is in the same way that the Ten Plagues were partly meant to show the Egyptians that God was in charge? No. Says Kushner. For that would be about God’s pride, ego or hubris. Rather, the goal is to help human beings realize that ultimately the strength within us comes from God and not from somewhere else. As much as we may have theological issues with the Torah text, we are told that the ten plagues were meant to show not only the Egyptians, but the Israelites as well, that God is the ultimate power in the universe. It was important that the people knew that it was God, not Pharaoh, or even Moses, who freed the slaves. Kushner compares the struggle to free the African American slaves in the 19th century. Some opposed slavery because they believed it did not make economic sense to have slaves with the advent of new machinery and an improved economy. Yet, ultimately, the voices that were heard above all others called on the abolition of slavery using Biblical verses to prove that slavery of human beings was an affront to God. We can therefore view the emancipation of slaves, not as a human endeavor, but as the manifestation of the Divine will.
Yet, realizing that the strength enabling us to withstand adversity and change the world comes from God and not from us reminds us that we are powerless without God. However, as I have said before, powerlessness is not a negative attribute, it is simply a reality. We only have power to good if we connect with the ultimate Divine power source that is within each of us. If we do not tap into that source, then we ultimately lose our way and our ego takes us on a trip that is filled with chaos. This is the essence of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all of the other 12-step recovery programs. We also read of this all over our scriptures and commentaries. God is the power that makes salvation, freedom, joy and happiness possible. God is our rock, our strength and shelter. Without God, we are nothing.
Just as we are getting accustomed this beautiful, serene scene, although it’s not without its bumps, twists and turns, the psalm seems to take a 180-degree turn: “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 they staff they comfort me.” Where did this dark valley and evil come from?
Do we really need to ask this question? We all know that in any moment we can suddenly find ourselves in a valley of deepest darkness, which is probably a more accurate translation of the phrase gai tzalmavet. Yet, the translators of the King James Bible hit on a powerful image with the phrase “shadow of death.” For often what causes us to feel darkness and despair is the presence of death in our lives. Whether it is because a loved one has recently died, or because there has been a tragedy such as a horrific accident, a terrorist attack or a hurricane, we know that death is always there. However, the shadow of death hovering above us can also be the death of our sense of hope, the death of a cherished idea or dream that we thought might come to fruition, or the death of a relationship with another. The death can even be the death of the image of ourselves that we may have clung to for dear life, but which we now realize was an illusion, a trick of the ego once again. Therefore, we must let go and see what is real instead.
We all have known, and will continue to know, different types of loss and death. The shadow of darkness is real. Yet, when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, we must also remember that a shadow must be caused by the presence of light somewhere beyond. The realization of that light, which is the presence of God, gives us the ability to walk through the valley and emerge at the other end. If we do not recognize God’s presence beyond the shadows, then we risk remaining in the valley of darkness, never again returning to life. We are able to emerge from the valley because we fear no evil, for God is with us. The psalmist does not say that there is no evil, for we know that evil exists. There are forces and people in the world who are bent on doing harm. There are forces within us, what our tradition calls the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards evil, that, spurred on by the ego, desire to sabotage our lives, doing evil to us and to those around us. Yet, we can ultimately face the evil forces within and around us for one simple reason – God is with us. It is God’s accompanying presence that allows us to face the demons, walk through the valley of shadows and ultimately emerge into the light. There may be moments during the journey when we become afraid, dejected or depressed. However, ultimately God ultimately enables us to transform that fear into fearlessness, strength and determination.
The staff is what the shepherd uses to guide his sheep and to help them get out of difficult places. The rod is what he uses to discipline the sheep when they are being stubborn or disobedient. The guidance and comfort of the staff is an image to which we can more readily relate. Yet, discipline is needed in life. The rod is a metaphor for the need to set boundaries and use discipline in our lives, lest we go off on circuitous paths that spiral downward into the valley never to come out again. God is not only the source of comfort and support, but just like a parent, God is the source of the boundaries, direction and discipline that we need in order to walk the path of life.
With love, compassion and mercy, as well as boundaries, limits and discipline, we can walk out of the valley of the shadow of death and back into life. When we emerge, we feel the light of God that was always there beyond the shadows and we can celebrate in that moment …
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runneth over.”
Therefore, as we emerge from the valley a table is set for us. God has prepared a celebratory banquet! But who are the guests at the table? Our enemies, so says the psalmist. This is a strange way to celebrate! At this point, I need to say that Max told me that this is the key verse for him in the psalm. If you want to know why, you’ll need to ask him. And I suggest that you do.
Kushner gives many possible interpretations of this verse. He cites Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who imagines sitting at a banquet table with all those whom he feels had done him wrong through the years. However, rather than rebuking them, he thanks them each for what they have taught him about himself. In coming to terms with what caused him to resent or feel anger towards each person he has been able to come to terms with an aspect of himself that he can now try to change. What a beautiful image of teshuvah, even if it might seem a difficult one to actualize.
However, Kushner sees this image more as a metaphor for acknowledging that some people who we thought would help us on our journey have actually let us down. He derives this interpretation by translating the phrase as “You prepare a table for me, facing my enemies.” In Kushner’s vision, we are seated around the banquet table looking squarely in the faces of those people to whom we turned for comfort, but who were not there for us. Perhaps they could not be there, perhaps they did not know what to do, perhaps they underestimated our pain, or perhaps they were just not capable of helping. Realizing this, we can view them no longer as enemies, but have compassion for them as the imperfect, fallible human beings they, and we, all are. For even though our disappointment in them is real, we know that God was and is always there. That is what matters.
I think we can also view the enemies with whom we sit at this table as the enemies within each of us: self-doubt, insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, hatred, and all the various tools the ego uses to separate us from God and other human beings and focus only on the imagined ‘self.’ By sitting down and looking straight at them, we realize that they have no power, for God is with us. God is not the source of these feelings. The ego is. God is the source of love, strength, compassion, mercy and unity. And God can ultimately defeat the ego every time.
Realizing this, our enemies dissolve before our eyes and we are left – not alone – but sitting at the table with God, realizing that we have been anointed. In ancient times, when a king or queen ascended the throne he or she was anointed with oil on the forehead. The word mashiach, or messiah, means “the anointed one.” Sitting at the table with God, realizing that each of us is anointed, we acknowledge our unique, special nature. Each of us is chosen by God to sit at God’s table. Each of us has the ability to be a messiah. In other words, we each have the ability to play a role in bringing peace, harmony, tranquility and unity to our world. We can each make a difference in the world. If not, our existence would be superfluous. Because of this “our cups runneth over.” We are filled with so much joy and love that we are bursting at the seams. We cannot believe how blessed we are. Not because we are better than anyone is, but because we have come to realize that each individual is a child a God, a part of God. We each have the potential to experience this feeling. Our joy is so great that it overflows and reaches out towards all of creation. For this, we are exceedingly grateful for all that God has given us. Kushner reminds the reader that gratitude and thanks are part of reciprocal relationship. For in order to be grateful for receiving someone, in this case God, must also be giving. In our relationships with other human beings, we must also emulate this reciprocal relationship. We must view life as a gift, even in the difficult moment. Yet, it is so easy to live life with a sense of entitlement. Often our society encourages us to do so. We think we deserve to get all the good things in life, and so we feel no gratitude for what we have. This is another trick of the ego, which is again trying to put “me” at the center, instead of God. If we feel entitled, we ignore the blessings of life and complain bitterly whenever things don’t happen as we think they should. Alternatively, the ego tricks us into believing that we are self-sufficient, so that everything we have comes from us and nothing else matters. If we live life this way we cannot receive the gift of life, nor can we pass on that gift to others in our lives. We instead live our lives jealous, frustrated, bitter and ultimately cut off from others and from God.
Instead, in each moment, we must do our best to be grateful for the gift of life. As psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “Gratitude [in a mature human being] is the ability to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively the basic good of life with awe, pleasure and wonder and even ecstasy.” It is recognizing that our cup does run over, and acknowledging God for being the source of life’ abundance, even when things are not as “perfect” as we think they “should” be.
The psalm ends with the verses, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Coming to the realization that God is my light, my source of strength, and the one of all being that connects everything in the universe, I know that I can continue on my path. While on the path, I must remember that it is not a path on which I run to chase after happiness, riches, wealth or any of the other “goodies” in the world. For goodness, or the yetzer ha’tov, is always following, or more accurately translated, pursuing us. No matter where we go, we only need to look over our shoulders and all the good things are right there waiting for us, as a gift from God. However, if we are always chasing after things, it’s impossible to notice, and so many people spend their entire lives missing the opportunity, missing the point, missing life. For to chase after the “good things” is again the work of the ego and the yetzer ha’ra, the evil inclination. However, it is not only goodness, that is pursuing us, but it is hesed, as well. Translated as mercy, the word hesed really means unending loving kindness, or as Kushner translates it, “unearned love.” We don’t have to do anything to receive hesed. We just need to pay attention and realize it’s there and it will come right to us. That is one of God’s greatest gifts, and what ultimately has the potential to provide each of us with strength. With goodness and hesed pursuing us wherever we go we have the ability to truly rejoice in each moment. When we do this, then we also realize that we “live in the house of the Lord.” What a gift! We are living in God’s house! Of course, this can be comforting or it can make one paranoid. After all, if you’re living in God’s house then God can see everything you do! However, it is the tension between comfort and a little bit of fear and trepidation that provides the balance we need in order to live in God’s house. Not fear of punishment or “being caught,” but fear of what it means to believe that there is a power greater that is always with us. However, it is this belief that can also provide comfort, for you don’t have to worry about confessing your sins to God, because God already knows them. That is because God is always with us and within us, for God is a part of us. That is what dwelling in God’s house means to me. It does not mean that God literally watches us each moment, but rather, that the God within is aware of everything we do; so when we do something to help others and our world, we can feel the pride within that comes not from the ego, but from God. When I do something that is harmful to others or myself if I am truly aware in that moment, I can feel the pain and disappointment within. However, it is not a judgmental feeling, for judgment is another trick of the ego. Rather, it is the godly part of us having compassion and love – rachamim and hesed – for us and helping us to see what we could have done differently. Ultimately, this is constructive and comforting and not berating or self-loathing. For dwelling in the house of the Lord means dwelling in a place of love, mercy, compassion and support. It is not about “big brother” watching over us every minute. Rather, it is about our eternal parent being with us for support at every moment, even as we exercise the free will that God has given us, which is perhaps the greatest Divine gift that we receive.
Thus ends the psalm, reminding us that the goal in life is to dwell in God’s house forever. The psalmist states the same goal in Psalm 27, the Psalm for the Season of Repentance: One thing do I ask from God; that I may dwell in the House of the Eternal all the days of my life.” That’s it. In addition, Psalm 23 provides a path for us to reach this goal. It is a path of gratitude, of being present, of acknowledging God’s presence and God’s power in our life, and ultimately, acknowledging human powerlessness. As I’ve stated numerous times before, powerlessness is where we seem to be stuck. The American ethos teaches that each of us is a unique and powerful individual who can accomplish anything if we just put our minds to it, put our noses to the grindstone, and so on. The psalmist is not disagreeing with this. It is just saying that this power does not cone from us, but from God working through us. And this message the psalmist is giving us applies to Teshuvah as well as to the entire way we live our lives. For Teshuvah involves returning to God and acknowledging God’s presence and power, and then turning back to our friends, our family, our community and ourselves in order to seek forgiveness, knowing that God is with us during each step of this difficult process. That is what makes it all possible.
In addition, if we choose to act in ways that prevents us from “dwelling in God’s house” then become disconnected from God and the world. By doing teshuvah, we can turn around and walk through the door of God’s house and be welcomed with open arms. To do so is to reach the place of atonement, which comes from the Latin meaning to be at one, or in unity. To achieve atonement, or “at-one-ment,” means to be at one with God, and that means at one with self, humanity and the universe. Being at one is the ultimate goal of the journey described in the psalm, as well as the ultimate goal of the journey we travel on Yom Kippur. May we each do our best as we travel on the path, step-by-step, moment by moment, individually and as a community so that we may all appreciate the gift of our life and our world, and dwell together in God’s house for many years to come.