The beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul tells us that the High Holiday season is fast approaching. Every year during this month, we anticipate Rosh Hashana with the blast of the shofar each weekday morning and with the twice-daily repetition of Psalm 27, also known by its opening Hebrew phrase, LeDavid Hashem Ori. This year, with some synagogues still closed and many reluctant to attend those that have reopened, the blowing of the shofar during Elul is not as universally available a symbol of Rosh Hashana preparation as usual. Psalm 27 thus takes on heightened importance as the focus of our spiritual preparations for the holiday season.
What has always struck me about Psalm 27 is the dramatic change in mood that occurs in the middle of the psalm. The first six verses are celebratory in tone. The Psalmist, addressing his fellow Jews, recounts his gratitude to God for His help, expressing confidence in His protection.
The Lord is my light and my help; whom shall I fear?…Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in his tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord. (27:1, 6, JPS translation).
At the height of the Psalmist’s celebration, however, his mood suddenly changes. His confidence in God’s protection seems to ebb. In the next six verses, he is no longer addressing those around him. Rather, he is speaking directly to God, begging for His help:
Hear O Lord when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me… Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger. You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me. (27:7, 9)
What accounts for the radical transformation in tone? Why does the Psalmist shift so suddenly from joyous confidence to abject fear? And what does this shift have to do with the coming holiday season?
One possible explanation involves the difference in whom he is addressing. In the first six verses, he is addressing others. The Psalm contains military imagery, so we might imagine him as a commander addressing his troops. His goal is to inspire them with confidence in God’s help; if they do their part, He will do His.
Deep inside his soul, however, there is a fear born of uncertainty, an uncertainty reflected in the next six verses. Suppose his men are not worthy of God’s protection? Suppose they don’t do their part adequately? He has to project confidence in order to motivate his troops, yet inwardly he feels the weight of responsibility, the burden of leadership. He cannot be assured of victory. All he can do is beg God: “Do not forsake me, do not abandon me.”
In this season of teshuva (repentance), I must imagine, our religious leaders face a similar dilemma. Their goal is to inspire us to teshuva, to assure us of God’s mercy. Yet neither they nor we can be certain that our teshuva, however sincere, will be efficacious. Particularly this year, when a deadly virus has already cost many thousands of lives throughout the world, attempts to see God’s handiwork in the natural world will ring somewhat hollow. Ordinary people will have questions to which there will be no easy answers.
Under these circumstances, the juxtaposition of these two sections of Psalm 27 will be more important than ever. Many will experience the holiday season without all its familiar accoutrements. We need to be reminded of the blessings God has bestowed on us, but we must also be reassured of our ability to plead for God’s mercy.
The only ultimate answer is the one contained in the psalm’s final two verses. The penultimate verse is fragmentary, incomplete:
Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living …” (27:13)
Suddenly, the Psalmist stops. It is as if he realized midway through the thought that he cannot complete it as he intended. Instead he continues, summing up his thoughts in the only way he honestly can:
Look to the Lord, be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord. (27:14)