“Be strong and of good courage”: An Elul Thought

The central feature of the Hebrew month of Elul is the twice-daily recitation of Psalm 27, better known by its first three Hebrew words, LeDavid Hashem ori (of David, the Lord is my light). Many of us are so accustomed to associating this Psalm with this season that we rarely stop to think about what the connection is. Why does Psalm 27 dominate the holiday season, from the beginning of Elul until Hoshana Rabah (Shemini Atzeret, in the Diaspora)?

The question becomes all the more puzzling if you contrast this psalm with Psalm 130, which most traditional synagogues recite each morning during the ten day period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. The eleventh of the fifteen psalms that begin with the words shir hamaalot (song of ascents), Psalm 130 focuses on the central theme of the season, that of sin and repentance.

You keep account of sins, O Lord, Lord , who will survive? Yours is the power to forgive, so that You may be held in awe. (130:3-4, JPS translation).
One would expect that same theme to dominate Psalm 27. But it doesn’t. The overarching theme of Psalm 27 is not sin and repentance but rather trust in God’s protection. To understand better this psalm’s place in the our liturgical calendar, let’s take a careful at the text. The first three verses, using a military metaphor, express that theme most clearly:
The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread? When evil men assail me to devour my flesh, it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall. Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.(Psalms 27:1-3 ).
The next verse, the best known verse of this psalm because it has been made nto several songs, interrupts the theme to make a request:
One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His Temple.(27:4)
While the Psalmist expresses confidence in God’s protection, he knows that protection is not unconditional. To earn it, he must serve God, and he asks for the ability to do so. Having made that request, he returns to his main theme:
He will shelter me in His pavilion [Heb. Sukkoh] on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock. Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout. I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy [Heb. zivchei teruah], singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord. (27:5-6)
Confident as he may be, the Psalmist knows from experience that there are different levels of God’s protection, and he will not always experience that protection on the highest level. The lowest level of protection, that of a sukkah, is incomplete, since by definition its roof is permeable. A tent, by contrast, offers complete protection, but only if he remains hidden out of sight. The highest level is to place him high upon a rock, where his enemies can see him but not harm him. It is this level of protection that leads him to celebration; it is that to which he aspires. Yet he reminds himself — and us — that even on “an evil day” he is under God’s protection, even though that protection is less complete than he would like.
Beginning with verse 7, however, the tone of the Psalm changes radically. Up to this point, the Psalmist has spoken of God in the third person, expressing confidence in His favor. The text does not make clear whom he is addressing in the first six verses, though if we take the military metaphor literally, we may picture him as a commander addressing his troops.
Now, however, he turns to address God directly. His confidence is gone, and so are those whom he previously addressed. Alone with God, he can no longer hide his fear.
Hear, O Lord when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me. In Your behalf my heart says “Seek My face!” O, Lord I seek Your face. 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. O God my deliverer. (27:7-9)
What has led the Psalmist to change his tone so completely? What happened to his confidence? These verses don’t mention sin, or suggest that he doubts that he is worthy of God’s protection. Rather, he fears the loss of God’s favor for no discernible reason. When he begs God not to hide His face, he is acknowledging that God’s will is inscrutable. He goes on to contrast it with the most important of human relationships:

Though my father and mother abandon me the Lord will take me in. Show me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes. (27:10-11).

Despite his fear, he has no alternative but to turn to God. His parents, after all, are mortal and won’t always be there to protect him. He begs God to show him how to recapture the confidence he displayed at the beginning of the psalm. He reminds God that imperfect as he may be in God’s perspective, he is more worthy of God’s favor than his enemies:

Do not subject me to the will of my foes. for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me. (27:12)

Yet he recognizes the inadequacy of that plea and instead begins a verse he cannot complete:

Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the living (27:12)

This verse is a fragment, obviously incomplete. It reads as if he suddenly realizes that what he began to say — that he is confident that God’s goodness will be apparent in this world — is not consistent with our experience in this world. He thus sums up the psalm by reiterating the only possible conclusion:

Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord.

So what is the connection between Psalm 27 and the season of the year during which we recite it? In order to do real teshuva (repentance), we need to overcome the obstacles within us, one of which is our difficulty in trusting God’s stewardship of the world, given its obvious imperfections. We need to remind ourselves that we are under God’s protection even when that protection is palpably incomplete. We must pledge ourselves to His service even when, as the fragmentary nature of the psalm’s penultimate verse depicts, we cannot hope to fully appreciate the workings of His world. Only after we have thus prepared ourselves can the real work of teshuva — the focus of Psalm 130 – begin.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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