There’s a canard that religious people hear again and again from their non-religious acquaintances: “I’m jealous. It must be such a comfort to be able to believe in God.” They haven’t read Psalm 27, which observant Jews recite twice daily from the beginning of the month of Elul (which began earlier this week) throughout the holiday season that concludes eight weeks later.
The psalm (Read the Hebrew text, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, and hear the Psalm read in the original Hebrew here) belies such a naïve view of the relationship between human beings and God.
Famously, this poem seems to run backwards, if your standard is the assumption that people pray so that their prayers will be answered. It begins with a declaration of confidence in God’s protection, goes on to pleading, then to expressions of loneliness and doubt, and ends with a determined affirmation of God despite the uncertainty the poet sees in the world around him. The disparity of mood is so great that some scholars have suggested that the psalm is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate works.
In fact, the psalm divides thematically into three parts. In the first part, consisting of the first three verses, the speaker is absolutely certain of God’s intervention in his favor. In the second section, verses 4-6, doubt begins to creep in. The psalmist realizes the irony of his situation. He (or she) may be certain that God is on his side, yet this is not the same as being close to God. The body may wish for security, but the soul needs something else—closeness to God, a relationship with the divine. His declaration of confidence is thus replaced with requests, in descending order of if not A, then B. First he asks to dwell in God’s house, then simply to visit.
Realizing that he has not achieved this intimacy with God, the poet’s confidence begins to crumble. He asks for God’s protection rather than declares it. He’s confused—does he wish to dwell with God for the sake of being close to God, or merely because God’s tent or dwelling will protect him physically?
This conflict leaves the speaker naked on both counts. He no longer feels secure physically, and he feels abandoned spiritually. He fears God’s anger and, even more so, his absence. God’s withdrawal mirrors his objective situation: we learn that the speaker is, or feels himself to be, an orphan, and that he is, or feels himself to be in great physical danger from his enemies.
The psalm’s penultimate verse is a curious and complex conditional statement, quite unlike the conviction with which the poem began. Lulei he’emanti lir’to be-tuv adonai be’eretz hayyim—“If I had not believed to look on the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” in the JPS translation. I’d render it differently, as an ironic lament over his previous miscomprehension of God, which misled him: “Had I only not believed that I saw the goodness of the Lord in the mortal world!” Then the final verse follows logically, if paradoxically: I do not see God’s goodness, I do not feel his protection, and therefore I must take courage and place my hope and trust in God.
The psalmist has come a full circle. From taking God’s protection as an axiom, as an obvious fact about the world that is the basis for all else, he now sees that God is not a premise but a conclusion. We do not see God in the world around us, we cannot be confident of his protection. But we must not abandon God, just as we do not want to be abandoned. We must bring God into the world.
If my reading is correct, then the appropriateness of reading it in the high holiday season is clear. These holidays center around the theme of repentance, but each individual festival is part of a progression. We can’t directly repent and then rejoice in being forgiven. During the month of Elul we prepare. On Rosh Hashanah, we accept God’s kingship—we place God over the world. That is a precondition for repenting our sins and asking for His absolution. Having received it, we shelter in his tent—our sukkah, the temporary home in which we have a direct, unmediated relationship with Heaven. And we conclude, on Shimini Atzeret/Simhat Torah, by accepting the Torah and beginning to read it anew—a Torah that calls on us not just to believe, or not primarily to believe, but rather to study and to be active participants in God’s work in the world.
Ironically, Psalm 27 makes doubt, fear, and loneliness a necessary condition for establishing a true and proper relationship between the human and the divine. Rather than freeing us of our doubts and worries so that we may live in peace, God requires us to think, to agonize, and to take action.