This is a guide to repentance, in the form of a commentary on Psalm 27, intended to be used during the month of Elul, which preceeds Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish calendar. To start at the beginning, click here.
copyright Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman
(For full text of psalm, click here.)
What a great great gift it is to be have consciousness of self. To live above the instinctual level and possess the capacity to grasp meaning and endow life with meaning is a divine gift, a gift which entails responsibility. As creatures created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) our capacity for improvement mandates our obligation to improve. Having accepted responsibility for ourselves, we set out along the path of teshuvah with the sure confidence that at the other end will find ourselves better people.
Much has been written about guilt. Of late, it has been condemned by more than a few psychologists as a counterproductive emotion, and while excessive and unwarranted guilt can become an emotional anchor weighing down the soul, most guilt is healthy and productive. Guilt is the soul's barometer. It is our way of measuring our own deeds and words. It is the still, small voice of God within us that refuses to settle for mediocrity or worse. It is corrective. When we feel regret over what we have done or said, often that regret derives from a sense of guilt that is deeper than mere recognition of the wrongdoing. We sense that a relationship has been damaged and requires repair.
Guilt, if used productively, gives us pause to ask: Against whom did I sin? How can I rectify the damage? How can I work to prevent the same mistake? Most of us could generate a long list of deeds during the past year that do not speak to the best that is within us. Take a moment to chose one at this time and consider it thoroughly.
Against whom did you sin? Was it another person? Yourself? God? These three are like concentric circles: When you hurt another person, you hurt yourself and God, as well. When you sin against yourself, you sin against God, as well. Our actions damage our relationships: with others, with God, even with ourselves, because they diminish our sense of self.
Verses 4 through 6 of Psalm 27 speak to the idea of reestablishing a relationship with God, the very crux of teshuvah. All teshuvah ends up between us and God. Our Mishnah teaches: "Whoever says: I shall sin and repent, sin again and repent again, will have no opportunity to repent. Whoever says: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will atone for me will gain no atonement through Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur brings atonement only for transgressions between people and God. Atonement for transgressions between one person and another can be gained only when the wrong has been righted and the offended person has been reconciled. For on this day shall God grant you atonement, to purify you; of all your sins shall you be purified before the Lord [Leviticus 16:30]. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah expounded the verse this way: Yom Kippur brings atonement for transgressions between people and God, but Yom Kippur can bring atonement for transgressions between one person and another only if the person offended has first been reconciled." [Mishnah Yoma 8:9] All teshuvah ends up between us and God.
The vocabulary in this Psalm is especially interesting to me. In verse 4, we find the psalmist seeking God in order to "behold the beauty of Adonai." The term for "to behold" (CH-Z-H) is found frequently in the Bible and means "to see," "to look at," or "to behold." In the prophetic literature, it sometimes connotes a vision of, or from, God (see Habakkuk 2:3; Ezekiel 12:21-28 suggests both genuine visions and false divinations can come under the usage of this term). However, Psalms 116 and 122 suggest another meaning. Psalm 116 is a psalm of David which includes the inscription "when he was in the Wilderness of Judah." Like many of the psalms of David, it is a plea for cleavage to God. The psalm opens with the words, "Adonai, You are my God; I search for You, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You, as parched and thirsty land that has no water." David, Sweet Singer of Zion, is searching for God in his life. Like all people, his relationship with God ebbs and flows. At the time this psalm was written, he was searching to draw closer to God. Psalm 11, too, bears the inscription "Of David." Here, however, God is in the holy Temple and the throne in heaven, and is searching out humanity. Here, God searches for us, seeking righteousness. While the first psalm (Psalm 116) speaks of a human seeking God, the second psalm (Psalm 11) speaks of God seeking humanity. Thus the word we have translated "to behold" or "to see" can mean not only seeing but also seeking. The heart of teshuvah is to seek relationships that have been damaged by our words and deeds, or our failure to speak and act, and repair them. We must seek out those whom we have wronged, as Mishnah Yoma reminds us, to ask their forgiveness. This is often a difficult task. Rehashing "history" is like opening an old wound and watching it bleed anew. Here's another way to think about it: the old wound is surrounded by scar tissue. Consider your teshuvah the process of excising the scar tissue so that the wound can heal afresh and the tissue will no longer be weakened and blemished.
In addition to the use of the term (CH-Z-H) in verses 4 and 5, we find five types of abodes of God specified: the House of God (beit-YHWH), the Temple (haychal), a pavilion (sukkah), a tent (ohel), and a rock (tzur). I am struck both by the connotations of these terms, as well as their order. First let me share some connections I make with these terms.
The term beit YHWH (House of God) is found in the Bible no fewer than 193 times, yet only thrice does it appear in the Psalms. Our psalm, Psalm 27, is of course, one of the three occurrences. Another is Psalm 116:19, a psalm which gives thanks for a personal deliverance, the precise nature of which is not specified.
(16) O Lord, I am Your servant, Your servant, the son of Your maidservant. You have undone the cords that bound me. (17) I will sacrifice a thank offering to You and invoke the name of the Lord. (18) I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all God's people, in the courts of the House of the Lord, in the midst of Jersualem. Hallelujah.
The author brings a sacrifice in order to express thanks "in the courts of the house of the Lord in the midst of Jerusalem." This informs our understanding of teshuvah, for repentance is a type of personal deliverance from the burden of guilt. It is surely not free absolution, as Mishnah Yoma reminds us. And just as sacrifice is brought in Psalm 116, we must carry through with atonement.
The third and final occurrence of beit YHWH in the Psalms is found in Psalm 122, a song of ascents which describes the community assembling at the gates of the city in order to climb Mt. Zion to the thrones of judgment. The participants are joyous in their pilgrimage and the prospect of judgment, for the result will be peace.
A song of ascents, of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, "We are going to the House of the Lord."
(2) Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
(3) Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,
(4) to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the Lord, as was enjoined upon Israel, to praise the name of the Lord.
(5) There the thrones of judgment stood, throne of the house of David.
(6) Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem: "May those who love you be at peace.
(7) May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels."
(8) For the sake of my kind and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good.
The judgment implied here is of the human variety, but the connection to Rosh Hashanah is clear: We stand before the Throne of Judgment in the hope and prayerful expectation of receiving a judgment of peace and well-being in our lives. Teshuvah, our repentance that derives from our judgment of ourselves, brings peace of mind and soul. Psalm 122 expresses these ideas in a communal setting -- the background being a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The communal aspect of the High Holy Days is a significant part of the experience. Taken together with the individual, personal tone of Psalm 116, these passages reflect the spectrum of the High Holy Day experience: it is a deeply personal time and our teshuvah is private and individual, yet it is done in the embrace of the community. I have always been struck by the manner in which the confessions in the machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) Yom Kippur liturgy are couched in the plural: We have sinned... and listed are a litany of crimes that no one person could have committed in their entirety. Yet we all confess to each and every one. Here the individual and communal elements merge: As a member of the community, I recite the full confessional, supporting those people who actually committed sins I have not committed. Likewise, they confess to sins they have not committed as I confess to ones I have. We support one another in the confessional; we are one people. At the same time, I know in my heart which sins apply to me, and for me the confessional is also a very private matter. Hence, both the personal and communal aspects of teshuvah come together.
The term haychal, meaning Temple, occurs scores of times in the Bible. This surely comes as no surprise. However, I want to share two occurrences which illuminate the sense of relationship implicit in our Psalm 27 and in the process of teshuvah, through which we repair breaches in our relationships. Psalm 65:5 speaks of God's Temple amidst the images of forgiving iniquities (verse 4) and drawing people near, in this case the one who will be the people's leader: "Happy is the one You choose and bring near to dwell in Your courts; may we be sated with the blessings of Your House, Your holy Temple." [Psalm 65:5] The rest of the psalm is devoted to describing God the Creator; creation is also a theme of the High Holy Days. We both celebrate the Creation of the world, which took place on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the month of Tishrei, and our own recreation through teshuvah. The other passage I wish to point out to you is found in Psalm 18:7 "In my distress I called on the Lord, cried out to my God; in his Temple (haychal) [God] heard my voice; my voice reached [God's] ears." It is the distress of guilt caused by sin which brings us to God in repentance. Do we cry out? Sometime yes. Sometimes we try to ignore what we have done and hope that the uncomfortable feeling will pass. The phrase "hear my voice" is one we hear throughout the High Holy Days voiced in the plural: Shema Koleinu, Hear our voices! Psalm 18 captures both the distress and the effort to seek God. Notice, too, that it affirms that our voices will be heard: "[God] hear my voice; my voice reached [God's] ears." Genuine teshuvah always reaches God. The Gates of Prayer are sometime open and sometimes closed, but the Gates of Repentance are always open. Thus both Psalms 18 and 65 present the Temple (haychal) as a place of meeting for humans to draw close to one another. The Temple which once stood in Jerusalem stands no more, but the meeting between God and human continues in the human heart.
Sukkah carries many wonderful connotations in Jewish tradition. Sukkot are small, temporary huts built by our ancestors during their 40-year wilderness journey between slavery and degradation in Egypt to freedom and dignity in the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:42 and Nehemiah 8:15-17). The term sukkah (sometimes translated "tabernacle," as well) carries connotations of protection. In the evening prayers, we ask God to "spread over us the tabernacle of Your peace." Psalm 31:21 speaks of a sukkah as a place in which people enjoy God's protection. The two most interesting passages, to me, are found in the books of the prophets Isaiah and Jonah. In Isaiah 4:6 we find the term employed in the context of all the themes most poignant on the High Holy Days: judgment, cleansing, redemption, protection, and God's renewed creation.
When my Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and from Jerusalem's midst, and has rinsed out her infamy, in the spirit of judgment and in a spirit of purging, the Lord will create over the whole shrine and meeting place of Mount Zion cloud by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy, which shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and for shelter and protection against drenching rain. [Isaiah 4:4-6]
The passage in Jonah (4:5) is one we read as our Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon: Jonah is upset that God will forgive the Ninevites and builds himself a sukkah outside the city to shelter him from the sun, in which he can rest and wait to see what will transpire.
Now Jonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city. [Jonah 4:5]
Here, again, the overarching context is the theme of repentance. Jonah has inspired the people of Nineveh to repent, thus saving them from doom, yet he is sorely disappointed, because the fate he prophesied will not come to be. The sukkah he builds is one in which he can affect teshuvah of his own for the harsh feelings he harbors in connection with the Ninevites. Perhaps that is the message of the sukkah: God desires our repentance that we can all be protected from the damage of sin: damage to our lives and relationships.
Taken together, the five terms for God's abodes present an interesting order. Again, they are: House of God, Temple, sukkah, tent, and rock. From one perspective, the are in decreasing order of distance, grandeur, glory, and majesty. Similarly, the first four, built by humans, range from permanent to temporary, elegant to simple, royal to common. I find it interesting that Rock is here. It was common for many peoples in the ancient Near East to associate their deity with a rocky outcrop or mountain. For Israel, however, Adonai is the bedrock of the universe. We can build monuments to God and symbolic abodes for God, but God's dwelling place is the entire universe, making God accessible to each and every one of us.
One final observation about this section of Psalm 27. It is voiced in the third person; the author is speaking about God, but not to God. At this stage in teshuvah, we think about what we have done and about whom we have wronged, but we have not yet approached them directly.
Rambam's first stage of Teshuvah is Regret. Our lives are filled with regrets. That is how it is. Missed opportunities, failed attempts, unappreciated sacrifices. At this time of year we focus on the breaches which can be repaired by changing our ways: our relationships. I encourage you to consider this week deeds and words which have ruptured one of your relationships.
If we are guilty of sin and confess it and yet do not change our ways, we may be compared to those who hold a defiling object even while they are immersed in purifying waters! Will all the world's waters help them? So long as we cling to defilement, the uncleanness remains. [Talmud]