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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. ūüôā

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. ūüėČ )

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, ◊Ę◊ě◊ď◊ô (imadi). “With me” is ◊Ę◊ě◊ô, imi. The word¬†imadi¬†comes from the root ◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď., 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.

◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď is also the root for the word ◊Ę◊ě◊ē◊ď, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in¬†these words: ◊©◊Ď◊ė (shevet), “rod,” and ◊ě◊©◊Ę◊†◊™ (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 ◊©.◊Ę.◊†, as in ◊ú◊Ē◊ô◊©◊Ę◊ü, “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 ◊ď◊©◊†◊™,¬†dishanta. The root ◊ď.◊©.◊† 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 ◊®◊ē◊ô◊Ē (revaya), from the root ◊®.◊ē.◊Ē/◊ô, 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¬†◊ú◊ź◊ē◊®◊ö ◊ô◊ě◊ô◊Ě (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 ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô,¬†shavti.¬†But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ◊ô◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô (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 ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô is from the root ◊©.◊Ď.◊Ē/◊ô, as in ◊©◊Ď◊ē◊ô (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

Confessions of a King David Fangirl

Dear Josep,

I was a rather unusual teenager in quite a number of ways.

For one thing, I hated shopping.

I never wore makeup–on principle–and rolled my eyes at the way my peers spent hours preening in front of the mirror.

While most girls my age spent their vacation time at the mall, the movies, or the beach, I was happiest cooped up in my room… writing novels.

Like the¬†teenage girls they were, my friends swooned over the likes of Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, and… I can’t even remember who else was popular at the time. That’s how much I cared!

I, on the other hand, was a King David fangirl.

Yeah. The one from 3,000 years ago.

You see, the more I learned about him, the more I admired and identified with him. He was a poet-musician-warrior-prophet-king who was crazy in love with God. He played the lyre, felled¬†a Philistine giant with a single stone, danced like a maniac in celebration of God’s glory, and cried his heart out in public¬†on many occasions. He made some terrible¬†mistakes, but he owned them. He was a badass with a sensitive and highly spiritual soul. His political actions set the stage for the most prosperous golden age in the history of the Jews, and he was the progenitor of what may have been the longest continuous dynasty of communal leaders in the¬†history of humankind.1

Beat that, Orlando Bloom.
Beat that, Orlando Bloom.

 

Both of the upcoming holidays,¬†Jerusalem Day and¬†Shavuot, have a connection to King David. So I shall take this opportunity to unleash my inner fangirl, and tell you all about my favorite Biblical character. ūüôā

Okay, so it turns out I can’t actually tell you¬†all about him. I started writing my merry way through the juiciest moments of his life story as told in Samuel I, and by the time I got halfway through the Goliath story,¬†this letter was already 1,000 words long!

So I’ll have to give you the highlights.

David, son of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem during the period of Samuel the Prophet. He¬†was probably a child when the first king of Israel, Saul, was ordained. When Saul fell out of God’s favor for failing to carry out a commandment, God ordered Samuel to¬†ordain David–then still a kid whose family apparently didn’t think much of him–as the new king. The Bible describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome.” Some interpret “ruddy” as meaning he had red hair, and you can see him depicted that way in many paintings.¬†Most likely, though, it means he had a reddish complexion. Rosy cheeks, if you will.

Anyway. Soon¬†after David’s secret ordination, King Saul felt the spirit of God leave him, and became quite depressed. Someone suggested finding a musician to¬†play music and¬†lift his spirits. Long story short, David became the first Royal Music Therapist.

Then the whole fiasco with¬†Goliath happened–a story I assume you are at least somewhat familiar with. After his stunning defeat of the Philistine warrior, David became quite the rock star among the Israelites. He married the king’s daughter¬†Michal and became best buddies with his new brother-in-law, Jonathan. (I believe these days we call it a “bromance.”) But Saul started to suspect David of trying to topple him from the throne, and started trying to kill him.

"So.... should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?"
“So…. should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?”

Michal and Jonathan helped David escape, and he ran into the wilds of Judah, hiding out in the desert with a little band of followers.

David spent the next period of his life¬†scurrying¬†around the Judean Desert trying to avoid getting caught and killed by Saul. There were a few close calls, and some confrontations that ended with Saul saying he was sorry and then changing his mind the next morning. (I believe these days we call it “bipolar.”) But David never attempted to take power during Saul’s lifetime and never dreamed of harming him. Heck, he cried like an idiot when he so much as tore the corner of Saul’s robe in a cave in Ein Gedi.

Anyway,¬†Saul was finally killed in battle in the Gilboa, along with his sons, including David’s best friend Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen” is a famous line from David’s heartbroken lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the final chapters of Samuel I.

With the old king dead, David began his rise to power. First he ruled over Judah from the city of Hebron. (Remember, Jerusalem was still under the Jebusites at this point.) Gradually the rest of the kingdom accepted him as their king. He proved very capable in battle and eventually conquered Jerusalem and established it as the eternal capital of Israel. (That’s where Jerusalem Day comes in. Shavuot is traditionally considered to be the birthday, and death day, of King David.)

There are many more stories to tell from Samuel II, but the most important one is the Bathsheba scandal. You may have heard this story too. It stands as an example of something unique about the Bible as a historical document: it does not gloss over the mistakes and sins of our great leaders. What happened is this: King David was looking out his window one night and he saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. He was so overcome with desire for her that he ordered her brought to the palace, and when he discovered that she was married, he arranged for her husband to be placed on the front line of the battle, basically assuring his death. When the husband did inevitably die in battle, David married Bathsheba.

Not a pleasant story.¬†Especially if you compare it with Saul’s sin.¬†All Saul did was have pity on an Amalekite king and some sheep. David committed adultery and murder! Why was Saul’s kingdom torn from him, then, while David’s wasn’t?

Most sages argue that the difference is in their responses.

When Samuel came to rebuke Saul, Saul got defensive and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and only admitted that he had sinned after Samuel informed him that God had decided to discontinue his dynasty.

In contrast, when Nathan the Prophet came to rebuke David, David immediately said “I have sinned before the Lord!” He took responsibility and owned his actions. He did real¬†teshuva. He did suffer consequences¬†for his sin–the death of his firstborn son from Bathsheba, and the turmoil in his household (the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, etc.)–but God did not take the kingdom from him or his descendants.

There is another important figure in the Bible who exhibited this kind of accountability: David’s ancestor Judah. On two notable occasions,2¬†Judah showed a willingness to own up to his mistakes and accept the full consequences of his actions. Tradition has it that it was this character trait of Judah’s that made God choose him as the progenitor of¬†the Davidic line.

I think the Bible makes a powerful statement through this. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is whether you try to make excuses and justify yourself, or whether you take responsibility, own your mistakes, and try to learn and grow from them. That, says the Bible, is the mark of a true leader.

When King David died, he passed the kingdom to his son, the wise King Solomon, who built the first Temple and ruled over Israel during a period of great prosperity and peace. We believe that the Messiah will be a direct descendant of King David, because God promised him that his dynasty would endure for eternity.

And now, I can’t finish a post about King David without mentioning the book of Psalms.

Tradition has it that the Psalms were composed by David, and if you read through them you will see that many of them begin with a statement about the author (usually David) and sometimes about the circumstances under which the psalm was written or for what purpose. Bible critics will argue that it was written much later by other poets, who used the context of King David’s life to lend¬†their work legitimacy, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to believe that he did write at least some of them.

Either way, I think the spirit of this Biblical figure is encapsulated within the wrenching and uplifting words of these remarkably raw poem-prayers.

When you open up a book of Psalms, you find the full range of human emotion laid out before you: from ecstasy, gratitude, and hope, to terror,¬†despair, and loneliness. You find expressions of ultimate closeness and oneness with God alongside explicit¬†expression of doubt and fear of abandonment. The fact that David could say both “Even though¬†I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23) and¬†“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) makes me feel a little less alone in trying to reconcile those two sentiments that battle it out within¬†me from time to time.

So… yes. King David was my teen crush and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.

Love,

Daniella

P.S. I’m thinkin’ this could be the first in a series of posts about important Jewish historical figures, called Awesome Jews of History. Is there a Jewish historical figure (or two… or five) that you’ve been curious about? (And by you, and mean you, Josep, and also you, blog readers!) Let me know!

P. P. S. Heck yeah, of course I dressed up as King David¬†for Purim one year! Or at least… my interpretation of him as a kind of Biblical rock star. ūüėõ

Yes, I know its a ukulele and not a lyre. A girls gotta work with what she has, aright?!
…with a¬†ukulele. Look, a girl’s gotta work with what she has, a’right?!

1. Though the sovereignty of the Jews was ended after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews always maintained a special status for those descended of the Davidic dynasty, and chose their leaders from their number. During the Gaonic period in Babylon, up until around 1,000 C.E., Jews were governed by the Exilarch, who was a descendant of the Davidic line. Thus, one could say that the House of David ruled the Jewish people for more than two thousand years.‚Ü©

2. The first was during the scandal with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 37:26); the second, and more well known, was when Joseph framed Benjamin, and Judah took responsibility and offered to go to jail in his stead (Genesis 44:18-34).‚Ü©