What Am I Afraid Of?–Psalm 27 and the Use of the Month of Elul
One of the ways that our tradition invites us to prepare for the High Holy Days is to recite and reflect upon Psalm 27 twice a day for the High Holy Day season, which leads into Rosh HaShanah.
In the first three verses, the psalmist affirms three times that they are not afraid, because G!d is with him. Methinks the psalmist doth protest too much. I sense that the psalmist is trying to convince the psalmist, and by covering up the actual feelings the psalmist harbors, the psalmist must be suffering deeply. Such a cover often belies tremendous self-doubt and, not infrequently, self-loathing.
My close friend and colleague Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, of blessed memory, taught that when the psalmist speaks of “mean-spirited people,” we should understand not actual persons, but the psalmist’s own internal voices. When the psalmist declares that “mean-spirited people draw near to slander me,” we might then hear the psalmist crying out, “my inner voices overcome me.” And those inner voices do slander: The slander is how we quietly abuse ourselves with our thoughts. We see ourselves as too ugly, too short or tall, too stupid, too incompetent, too ungenerous, too….Our inner voices slander us when they say we can’t, won’t or don’t think so.
The psalmist speaks of being under siege by our enemies. Many of us know what it is like to be under siege by our internal enemies: Addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, sex, and power, among other things, can feel as if we are completely under attack. We surround ourselves with the very things that make us crazy and give us no rest.
It is in the midst of these overwhelming powers that the psalmist asserts a policy of no fear, because the psalmist could rely upon G!d. The first two of the 12 Steps affirm something similar:
1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (drugs, gambling, et al) that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
How does this work? In the key verse (v. 4), the psalmist offers a three-pronged approach, powered by three verbs:
- To dwell in G!d’s house always
- To gaze on the beauty of G!d
- To pay attention in G!d’s sanctuary
“To dwell in G!d’s house”–Does this mean externally, to dwell with an external connection to that which is beyond us? Or does this mean internally, a sense of G!d as an internal spark and connectedness? Or is it both? To dwell in G!d’s house, then, might connote living within our own skins and to see how we are reflections of G!d’s Image. As we approach the New Year, where are you dwelling? How can you get yourself to dwell “in G!d’s house,” with a sense that your life has cosmic significance, that you matter, that G!d’s love envelops you?
“To gaze on the beauty of G!d”–How do we gaze on G!d’s beauty? Since we are made in G!d’s Image, we might start by seeing how G!d’s beauty is reflection within ourselves and within the people around us–both ourselves and all of them, all the time. This prong also suggests that we should focus upon the positive. As we approach the New Year, what do you often dwell on? How can you get yourself to locate the positive around you, within you, in life? How might you see its cosmic beauty? Can you keep your gaze focused on the positive in yourself and in others?
“To pay attention in G!d’s sanctuary”–”To pay attention” suggests that one observe something well and exhibit concern for it.” But our bodies, our homes, our CAH kehillah (family-community), could–and should–all be a mikdash m’at, a miniature version of G!d’s glorious sanctuary. But we have to pay attention and remain properly concerned, to ensure that our “internal enemies” don’t start or continue maligning us, to remain positive, to see our potential and life’s potential as interlinked, to make 5783 truly a shanah tovah, a year of sweetness, a year of goodness, a year of self-love, a year of positivity, a year that is spiritually directed, a year of vitality.
Kein y’hi ratzon. So may it be.
Rabbi J.B. Sacks
 Psalms in the Key of Healing: A Text Study for Clergy, Chaplains and People Living with Illness. 2021: Boulder, CO, Albion-Andalus, pp. 80-85.