A Psalm for Repentance
The Hebrew month of Elul offers us an opportunity to repent. It is an auspicious time granted us each year, during which we can shake off the shackles of our spiritual apathy and seek an engaging and loving path back to ourselves, our fellow human beings, and most importantly, God. One of the traditions prescribed to arouse the feeling of teshuvah, repentance, is the recitation of Psalms. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, in his classic guide entitled Days of Awe, writes, “there are many barriers to doing teshuvah. One person may not sufficiently awake and even one who arouses one’s self faces many barriers, for the gates ofteshuvah are shut in the face of many. There are those who do not know how to do it… But, even if a person is not awake for teshuvah, he will merit the awakening by the recitation of Psalms, and will open all of the closed gates and come into the gate of teshuvah.” Yet, one’s reading of the Psalms not only has the potential to open the gates of Heaven but also the gates of our hearts.
The addition of Psalm 27, recited twice daily during the High Holiday season, is an example of this increased presence of Psalms. Known as “the Psalm for the Season of Repentance,” Psalm 27 is a composition filled with a sense of overwhelming dread juxtaposed with God’s protection, raising an interesting question and a number of compelling answers.
The psalmist declares, “when evildoers draw near to slander me, when foes threaten — they stumble and fall. Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear. Though wars threaten, in this do I trust” (Psalm 27:2-3). Not surprisingly, commentators have sought to explain the latter clause — one, by suggesting that the psalmist is referring back to the opening of his song: namely, that “God is my light and help.” Many say this means that the psalmist places his trust squarely in the hands of God. Another interpretation comes out of the following verse where the psalmist says he seeks “to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of his life.” Perhaps it is in God’s Abode that the psalmist places his trust? Another possible reading is that it is the synagogue, or, as Psalm 27 would have it, the Temple, that is the refuge for our psalmist. Midrash Tehillim 27:4 offers yet another possible interpretation. It has been suggested that our verse actually refers to Yom Kippur. In this respect, perhaps the psalmist is referring not to a national war or battle, but to a battle within himself, “though wars threaten [referring to the perpetual conflict between one’s good and bad inclinations], in this [Yom Kippur] do I trust.”
The use of ambiguity in Hebrew verse allows for a multiplicity of interpretations. So, in seeking to establish what our psalmist places trust in, the answer is perhaps, all of the above: God, the Temple (or synagogue), and Yom Kippur. All of these come to play vital roles in our atonement. May each of us make an effort to open our souls during this season of Elul, to the words of the Psalms, especially Psalm 27. May we each take a moment to reflect on the true meaning of teshuvah. “We seek to return to God. Return us O Lord to You and we will return; renew our days as of old,” (Lamentations 5:21).
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.