“No’am Adonai” (the Beauty of Adonai): Psalm 27 and Elul
“[L]ahazot beno’am Adonai ul’vaker b’heychalo” (To gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, and to visit in God’s sanctuary) [Ps. 27:4]
From the beginning of the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to our services, containing the enigmatic phrase above.
Last year, Dr. Alan Cooper (Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies and provost of JTS) contributed an insightful essayexamining the whole of this psalm and its importance to the High Holidays. Here we explore just the short phrase above.
The psalmist seems to ask for a measure of revelation from God that was denied even to Moses. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks: “O let me see Your glory,” and the response from God is “no-one may see Me and be living.” What, then, is sought by the author of our psalm, and to what extent can we find ourselves in this quest?
In the coming weeks, many of us will spend many hours engaged in the liturgy of the season—the melodies, the texts, the sounds and actions and smells that are so familiar—beloved to many, dreaded by some. In between seeking the meaning of the texts, hearing the message and emotions of the melodies and chants, and discerning the wisdom and humanity in the sermons and teachings presented to us, there are those who will seek to encounter the Divine Presence that inspires and is the source of all our prayers—in fact, the source of all.
There is no specific moment in all the hundreds of pages of the mahzor where we might say, “This is the moment”—this is where God is to be encountered. For some, the spirit of holiness and the Divine Presence infuse and inspire all that happens within the synagogue and our rituals. For others, it is not so clear, not so apparent.
There are many who see the words of Psalm 27 not as a demand made to God, or in any way as a certainty, but as a hope, a dream that some insight, some moment of encounter with the numinous will indeed take place. The psalm goes further and promises (or inspires) that the encounter with God will be one of beauty (no’am). Some will find this encounter in words, others in melody, and some in silence. My teacher in London, Rabbi Lionel Blue, writes,
God may speak to us in a chance remark we overhear, through a stray thought in our mind, or by a word from the prayerbook that resonates in us. Perhaps a side door is the only door we have left open to God, the others we defended and barred, so God must steal into us like a thief in the night . . . So we chant our prayers and sing our hymns to prevent a few moments’ silence, for God speaks in the silence.
As we prepare for the Yamim Nora’im this year, let us look to loosen our defenses a little, to spend a little more time in the House of God, and perhaps we too will be blessed with our own experience of God’s beauty.
Hear a version by Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker, renowned for his renderings of the music of the Modzhitzer Hasidim.
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.