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.)
(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.
Rejection is a strong word in our language. It connotes disruption of a relationship, sometimes even finality. The thought of being rejected by someone else is painful. In the third stage of teshuvah, we come to see the positive side of rejection: Having assumed responsibility for our actions and come to regret them deeply, we now reject the behaviors at their core as behaviors unworthy of ourselves. When faced with a similar situation, we will not repeat our previous deeds.
Our Talmud teaches: 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.
The people and situations in our lives which provoked the behaviors we want to change will still be there at the end of Elul and after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are long gone. The stimulation to be cruel, impatient, sharp, ungracious, intolerant, abusive, aggressive, defiant all remain. We cannot change others. It is a truism that we can only change ourselves. In the process of teshuvah, the proof of success in in the exhibition of change, genuine change. When faced with the same temptations to commit deeds unworthy of ourselves, do we resist? When faced with the same situations which used to evoke negative words and deeds, do we instead manage to take a deep breath and be patient, kind, tolerant, gracious and nurturing? The proof of successful teshuvah is when our behavior toward others -- both word and deed -- changes even though the people and situations we face have not changed. That happens because our lives have changed direction. No longer facing only ourselves, with our own interests in mind, we face God.
The psalmist now changes direction, as well. Last week, we noted that the psalmist was speaking about God. In the verses above (7-10) the psalmist has shifted from third person to second person and now speaks directly to God. These verses encapsulate a fervent plea to experience the Divine Presence in life, to feel God's support and deliverance. When we undergo change, we often feel vulnerable. God can be an ultimate source of strength (the psalmist also wrote: "I lift up my eyes unto the mountains. From whence will my help come? My help will come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.") The analogy here is so stark as to be painful and frightening: parents, who ought to love us most and care for us most deeply and protect us most aggressively, leave us eventually because they die. Yet God never leaves us. God is the Rock upon whom we can place our trust with the assurance that God will never abandon us.
The psalmist uses an interesting term, ya-as-fei-ni, whose root means "gather." It is used frequently in the Bible to connote harvesting, when the crops are gathered in (Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13; Isaiah 17:5) and in the passive voice tells us that someone has died (the full expression being "gathered to his ancestors" -- see Numbers 27:13 and 31:2 for examples). There are other uses of the term, as well, such as Zephaniah 3:8 in which the nations are to be gathered together for punishment, Jeremiah 16:5 in which God withdraws divine favor from the people, and Psalm 26:9 in which the psalmist begs not be swept away with the sinner (reminiscent of the plea in Psalm 27:9, though there the verb is different).
There are also several instances which help me understand Psalm 27:10 more fully. The first is contained in Psalm 85:4 where the psalmist pleads with God to withdraw God's anger. The context is one of sin and forgiveness: Human sin provokes God's wrath and the psalmist is repentant and praying for forgiveness. The second instance is found in the book of the prophet Isaiah where we read:
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your vindicator shall march before you, the Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, God will say: Here I am! If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature -- then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday. [Isaiah 58:8-10]
To me this is a striking passage. Note the images, themes, and concerns which appear also in our Psalm 27 as they do in the Isaiah passage: light, healing, the Presence of God, God answering us, the fear of being banished, evil speech, the importance of moral behavior as a path to deliverance. It's all here: Isaiah chastises the people for their gross immorality and insensitivity to the poor. When they change their ways, when they do teshuvah -- not just in intention, but more importantly in deed -- then God will serve as their rear guard (here is where the term which began this discussion is used) in their march toward deliverance.
At the core of these passages is the desire to feel and experience God's Presence in our lives. In any age that's a tall order. I wonder if it's even more difficult in our times. As I mentioned earlier, many of us grow up with little sense of God in our lives. We mature, study, and form our values in a society that labels God superstition and shuts God out as antithetical to modernity and to a sophisticated, scientific view of the world. Yet many of us sense that there is more to life and the world than physics will ever explain. (Interestingly, some physicists have recently publicly shared their view that God might be located in the very phenomena which physicists study, specifically Chaos Theory, Quantum Mechanics, and the constants of the universe which are in such fine balance with one another.) For all of us, seeking "God's face," sensing God in our lives, is a special challenge.
The image of a "hidden God" as expressed in verse 9 is one that extends far back into the earliest recesses of our history. From time immemorial, our people has sought God and sometimes felt God's presence and sometimes felt God's absence. Sometimes God has seemed to be "hiding." Perhaps it can bring us some comfort that this is not a "modern" condition at all; it is a quintessentially human condition.
I have translated verse 8 in a manner different from most translations, so I advise you to consult other translations. I cannot be sure mine is correct. For me, however, this translation communicates an important religious truth: We seek God both for ourselves ("For me," says my heart) and for God ("Seek My face."). Judaism has long and eloquently spoken of the reciprocal relationship between God and Israel and how both need one another. Our leaders and heroes have not merely obeyed God, but argued with God (Abraham on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses on behalf of the people after the Golden Calf). In fact, Noah is roundly condemned by the Sages for obeying God meekly and failing to speak out on behalf of the people. During the Rosh Hashanah services, the Berditchever rabbi paused in the middle of a prayer and presented a claim to God: "Master of the universe, You must remember that at one time You went with Your Torah from nation to nation like a peddler with rotten apples, and not one nation was willing to accept it from You. No one would even look at You. Then we, the children of Israel, took the Law from You. Now I want to make You a proposition. We have a heap of sins and transgressions; You have an abundance of forgiveness and atonement; therefore, let us exchange. However, should You consider the exchange unfair, let me ask: If we did not have sins, what would You do with your pardons? Moreover, I desire a commission for handling this transaction: I demand that You also grant the children of Israel life and sustenance in the coming year." We are Yisrael, we Strive-with-God. That relationship is one we would do well to cultivate in our own lives.
Martin Buber wrote: "This fragile life between birth and death can nevertheless be a fulfillment--if it is a dialogue. In our life and experience we are addressed; by thought and speech and action, by producing and by influencing we are able to answer. For the most part we do not listen to the address, or we break into it with chatter. But if the word comes to us and the answer proceeds from us, then human life exists, though brokenly, in the world. The kindling of the response in that 'spark' of the soul, the blazing up of the response, which occurs time and again, to the unexpectedly approaching speed, we term responsibility..."
When we face God we can more easily reject sin. The measure of success is, facing the same situation, we behave differently.
We are a society of collectors. Clever marketers sell products in series, encouraging people to keep and collect more and more. Unfortunately, we often collect and keep resentments and bitter feelings, as well. At this time of year, as much as we need to ask the forgiveness of those whom we have hurt, we need to forgive those who have hurt us. Approaching someone with a smile and hand-shake may be all that is required to set a relationship aright. In the coming year a new attitude, best illustrated by this story, may help prevent us from collecting what we should let go:
Two friends, Jacob and Eliezer, were traveling together with their servants. The terrain was rough and at each impass, they worked together to meet its challenges. At one point, they came to a raging river which had to be forded. Jacob nearly drowned in the river, but Eliezer saved his friend's life. When Jacob had recovered from his ordeal, he carved these words into a rock on the shore near that spot where Eliezer had carried him out of the water: TRAVELER! IN THIS PLACE ELIEZER RISKED HIS LIFE TO SAVE THE LIFE OF HIS FRIEND JACOB. Jacob's servant watched him with great curiosity. Some days later, the two friends fell to quarreling about who should carry the food for their journey. Jacob thereupon took a stick, sat on the ground and scratched these words into the dirt: TRAVELER! IN THIS PLACE ELIEZER BROKE THE HEART OF HIS FRIEND JACOB DURING A TRIVIAL ARGUMENT. Again, Jacob's servant watched him with great curiosity. He asked, "Why is it that you inscribed the account of Eliezer's heroism in stone, but his cruelty in dirt?" Jacob smiled and responded, "I will forever cherish how my great friend Eliezer saved my life, risking his own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt." With that, he arose and wiped them away with his foot.
Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States for nine months in 1831. During that short time, he observed the institutions, values, political system, and ways of Americans and made many amazingly astute observations and astoundingly accurate predictions. He was a vocal critic of the American premium on equality, and while most of us would exalt the principle of equality as the antidote to tyrannies of many kinds, his warning is valuable nonetheless: "[Equality] tends to isolate [people] from each other, to concentrate every man's attention on himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification. The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles. There is no religion which does not place the object of man's desire above and beyond the treasures of earth." (Democracy in America, p. 152). In the Talmud, we are told that Rabbi Chiyah and Rabbi Shimon bar Abba were engaged in study. One said: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward, for it is written in the Bible: "My eyes and My heart will be there [on earth] for all time [I Kings 9:3]." The other said: Our eyes must be directed upward, for it is written: "Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven [Lamentations 3:41]". Meanwhile, Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yosei happened to come along. He said: What are you discussing? They told him, and then he said: This is the view of Abba: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, thus fulfilling both verses. Especially at this season we must be focused both toward earth -- toward those whose lives we touch -- and toward heaven.
If you choose to pollute yourself with sin, you will find all the gates open before you; and if you desire to attain the highest purity, you will find all the forces of goodness ready to help you. [Talmud]