Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. 🙂

But I want to start by telling you about an extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger is a Lubavitcher Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about buying you a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. 😉 )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the Tree of Life, a symbol for the Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.” We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”

 

…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word shevet implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word mish’enet comes from the root ׊.ע.× , as in להישען, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.” You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”? What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature. But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.׊.×  can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days” is a direct translation of לאורך ימים (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.” Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above, yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture my own suggestion: maybe שבתי is from the root ׊.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here is a quote from Psalm 27 for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell… One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?

Love,

Daniella

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