It’s very appropriate that the last Psalm in this series is chapter 23. This is the most popular or well-known Psalm there is, and perhaps the most beloved poem in history. I remember reciting it in public school until 1962. Thanks a lot, Supreme Court! It was actually fascinating that the principal of my junior high scurried around looking for inspirational secular poems to replace Psalm 23. None fit the bill. This short piece just speaks to us all.
Many of us think of this as a Shabbat Psalm, because depending upon your custom, it might be recited Friday night in shul, before Kiddush Shabbat morning or before bentching at Seuda Shlishit. At my house, we sing it as the Shabbat sky darkens. It’s calming at this melancholy moment as Shabbat fades. But, when one reads the poem, it’s not really about Shabbat, not like the Shabbat Zemirot, which reference all the Shabbat customs.
The Psalm itself clearly splits into two segments. The first bucolic section describes God as our Shepherd, our Provider, our Protector. The images are strong and confident, because King David was a master shepherd himself. He sees God grazing (LO ECHSAR, without lack), sheltering (YARBITZEINI), guiding (YENAHALEINI), refreshing (NAFSHI YESHOVEV), leading (YANCHEINI) and protecting (LO IRA RA) him just like David did for his flock.
The adjectives, too, hit just the right tone of security and calm. The grass (DESHE) is pleasant or luxuriant (NA’OT). The water is calm or quiet (MENUCHOT). The tracks followed are always the correct and right ones (TZEDEK). This last image of ‘just tracks’ in the search for pasture probably also implies that our David in his pre-king days never strayed onto land owned by others.
But, perhaps, the most striking image appears in verse 4. No matter how careful the shepherd, sometimes dangers intervene. Our Shepherd, as described by King David, projected a sense of ‘everything is going to be alright’ (LO IRA RA), no matter how gloomy the situation (TZALMAVET, perhaps ‘shadow of death’, but more likely ‘valley of deepest shadow’).
Reb Zadok describes the TZALMAVET as a deep psychological depression after committing a sin. Even the sinner, like the stray lamb, gets loving protection from God. The Rebbe explains that the ATA (You, or the King James version ‘Thou’) describes the aspect of God called The Holy One, Blessed Be He, who comforts those mired in sadness or melancholy.
To me, it’s fascinating that our poem has two words for ‘lead’, and two for ‘stick’. The terms YENAHALEINI (verse 2) and YANCHEINI (verse 3) also appear in the Song of the Sea (Shmot 15:14). In that poem, NACHITA is teamed with CHASDICHA (Your loving kindness), and NEHALTA is connected to B’OZICHA (Your strength). So, the leading described by the root NUN, CHET TAV is done gently, while NUN, HEY, LAMED is performed with more power, force. These two expressions line up nicely with SHEVET, a big stick, and MISH’AN, a gentle prod. We’ve got gentle guiding with the MISH’AN, and more forceful leading with a SHEVET, when more urgency is called for. Like parenting, the flock requires carefully calibrated force to be effective.
The last two verses of the Psalm describe a dinner party. Is this a Shabbat meal after a difficult week of finding the necessities of life? Perhaps, it’s a feast in the Beit HaMikdash after a prolonged period of wandering exile, before our Shepherd guided us home. Take your pick. They both work. Generally, we sing these verses at a Shabbat table, so, I guess, the consensus is dinner party.
The image projected in the penultimate verse is that of a beautiful table set or arranged in sight of one’s enemies or oppressors. King David had plenty of enemies. Some commentaries assume that these adversaries were the House of Shaul who tried to prevent King David from assuming the throne. Others describe these players as those who tried to wrest the kingdom from David during his long reign over Yisrael. I like the second approach, because it sounds like King David is already enjoying the fruits of his kingship at this fully set table.
The anointing oil could signify the coronation ceremony which declared him king, or it could refer to the ancient custom of shmearing one’s head with oil for comfort and luxury. The full cup of wine, of course, gives us the custom of filling cups to the brim when the wine is for a mitzva. Personally, I prefer just going as far as surface tension, rather than actually spilling wine. Waste not; want not.
We finally come to King David’s closing plea: Surely goodness and kindness should pursue me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord for many long days (verse 6). There are two salient questions about this beautiful verse. First why should ‘goodness and kindness’ have to chase after him? Wouldn’t King David just embrace them or even run after them himself? According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, sometimes people don’t know what’s good for them. King David is begging God to bring the good to him, even when his instincts are off.
King David then requests to remain in the House of God for all the remaining time allotted to him. This supplication is famous and frequent in King David’s songs. He often longed for the companionship of God. Here the King is asking God to keep him close to the Divine Presence, because he’s so very concerned that being King is keeping him from the spirituality that he felt in his youth as a shepherd.
The P’SHAT or literal meaning of the final phrase L’ORECH YAMIM (for many long days) means the rest of King David’s life. However, the Midrashic approach to this verse assumes that we’re discussing one’s eternal existence, ‘forever’, has a powerful hold on Jewish tradition. This is, of course, why this Psalm is ubiquitous at funerals. But the poem is more a celebration of a life guided by God’s kindness and love.
This beautiful song of a life well-lived is amazing evidence to King David’s grasp of the meaning of existence and of our connection, dependence on God, our faithful Shepherd.