Preparing for the High Holy Days
A Commentary on Psalm 27 Of David

copyright 1999 Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman


Several summers ago, one of my children attended a two-week sleepaway program. As we stood on the interminable registration line, a parent behind me remarked to her son, "You're not going to recognize your room when you return. I'm going to paint it." What a marvelous idea, I thought. My son's room still featured the toddler-style wallpaper of the previous owners; in fact, there were three different patterns covering its four walls. My imagination was instantly ablaze with the vision of how I would paint his room. Best of all, it would be a surprise. I didn't stop to give full consideration to what was ahead; the thought of how happy this change would make a child who never asked for anything filled with me energy and delight. What is more, I had two weeks to work without inconveniencing my son and without him getting in my way. As soon as I returned home, I set to work. Those of you who have stripped wallpaper know where this anecdote is headed. Those of you who haven't stripped wallpaper are either far smarter than me because you hire someone else to do it, or simply not endowed with a masochistic gene. My point, however, is this: It took the better part of those two weeks, including some daytime hours but also many late-night hours to prepare the room to paint. Laying out drop clothes, applying chemicals, scraping, spackling, sanding, cleaning up, and changing dropclothes took up most of the two weeks. Two days remained and the room had four plain, patched but smooth walls. It took a mere 1-1/2 days to roll two coats onto the walls and paint three coats of trim with a brush, and another half day to sew the valences, shams, and pillowcases, and rearrange the furniture. The room was completely transformed. Now here's the point of this story: The vast majority of my time was spent in preparation, preparation that was arduous and, for the most part, unpleasant. Without that preparation, however, the project would never have seen its way to completion, and my son would still be living in a bedroom adorned with stripes and trucks of various sizes. Now, of course there is no tragedy living in a room with stripes and trucks, but if you could have seen his face when he arrived home and entered his room to see it entirely transformed, you would understand how worthwhile my efforts were. The expression of surprise and thorough delight on his face is still vivid in my mind. It is an image that will never fade. For my part, I am struck with the proportion of time I allotted to preparation compared with that of actually painting. (August, 1999)

And it is here that the analogy to teshuvah (repentance) lies. For one or two days a year, we gather in our synagogues in expectation of achieving repentance and renewing ourselves spiritually for the coming year. We do so at a time when other concerns enter our lives. It is the beginning of a new schoolyear. For many, it is the beginning of a new work year. Often it is a time of family reunion, and the concerns of guests and meals hold sway. Have we made enough food? Will grandma be comfortable in the guest room? Will Uncle Chaim like the honey cake this year? Will Cousin Jake speak with Aunt Hilda? How can any one human being make the most of the spiritual opportunities that Rosh Hashanah holds forth when so much else is happening in one's life? The key is preparation. One who prepares the walls thoroughly for a week and a half has smooth painting for the day. One who prepares for teshuvah during the month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, will find Rosh Hashanah far more meaningful and effective.

One of the key ingredients to "preparing the walls" for teshuvah in our tradition is Psalm 27. The Psalms are the earliest prayerbook of the People Israel. Its offerings, which combine the best of poetry, petition, and song, have survived the ages because of their depth of meaning and spiritual artistry. They continue to speak to us but it grows more difficult to hear their message, the more separated we are by time, culture, and language. When we come to understand them, however, they take on a magical power because they allow us to articulate thoughts which we often find difficult to say ourselves. I find the psalms exquisitely powerful and valuable. I want to share that transforming power with you. What I have written here is a commentary/guide to the Twenty-seventh Psalm, which is added to the evening and morning liturgy from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Hoshanah Rabbah. I have divided Psalm 27 into four sections with the thought in mind that you might like to concentrate on one section during each of the four weeks of Elul, as you prepare for your own teshuvah. I have correlated these four sections to four steps of repentance. The Rambam [Moses Maimonides, 12th century] wrote in his Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) of three steps: Regret, Rejection, and Resolution. I have added one more, which I place first: Responsibility. Together these make the Four R's of Repentance:

  1. Responsibility (for the week of 1 Elul/September 1, 2000)
  2. Regret (for the week of 8 Elul/September 8, 2000)
  3. Rejection (for the week of 15 Elul/September 15, 2000)
  4. Resolution (for the week of 22 Elul/September 22, 2000)

Please use what follows in any way you feel best.

On a personal note, I wrote this guide in the days following back surgery during the summer of 1998. One of the benefits of the post-operative drugs was to keep me awake most of the night. Some people might not consider this a "benefit," but I chose to see it as an opportunity for productivity. Ironically, my son was away attending the same summer program during this period, and I wrote this in his bedroom, whose white and orange walls are now adorned with prints by Van Gogh, Matisse, and Rousseau which he chose at various art museum shops. This is a very nice place to work! What is more, the quiet hours of the middle of the night are a wonderful time to spend with one's thoughts, the Psalms, and God.

Psalm 27

(1) Adonai is my light and my life. Whom shall I fear?
Adonai is the foundation of my life.Whom shall I dread?
(2) When evil-doers assail me to devour my flesh,
It is they -- my adversaries and enemies -- who stumble and fall.
(3) Should an army besiege me, my heart would not fear.
Should war beset me
Even then would I be confident.
(4) One thing I ask of Adonai,
Only this do I seek: to live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai, to frequent his Temple.
(5) For Adonai will conceal me in his sukkah on an evil day,
and hide me in the covert of his tent,
raise me up high on a rock.
(6) And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies all around me
And I will offer sacrifices in [Adonai's] tent
with the sound of trumpets.
I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to Adonai.
(7) Hear my voice, Adonai, when I cry out
have mercy on me and answer me.
(8) "For yourself," says my heart.
"Seek My face."
Adonai, I seek Your face.
(9) Do not hide Your face from me.
Do not push aside Your servant in anger.
You have always been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O Lord my deliverer.
(10) For my father and my mother abandon me, but Adonai gathers me up.
(11) Show me Your way, Adonai,
and lead me on a level path
because of my ever-watchful foes.
(12) Deliver me not over unto the will of my adversaries
For false witnesses have risen up against me
and those who breathe violence.
(13) If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of God,
[I would no longer be] in the land of the living.
(14) Look to Adonai.
Be strong and of good courage.
Look to Adonai !