Through the Torah, God embraces us by giving us His most intimate gift -- Himself. Through its pages we can learn His will and observe His deeds. The Book of Psalms is our response to His love; through its words we give Him our hearts. More tears have been shed over its pages than over the pages of any other book of the Bible.
King David used ten sources to compile his most famous contribution to the Jewish people, but the voice that we hear most clearly is his. The Talmud tells us that he was a universal soul. His 70-year lifespan was taken from Adam, who lived to be 930 rather than the thousand years that might have been his destined time on earth. This gave him something of Adam, who was the physical and spiritual source of all future humans.
Not unexpectedly, his life, that of the universal man, was stormy. He survived almost every experience in the spectrum of human events. For much of his life he was surrounded by family, but for long periods was doomed to almost complete isolation. He found both love and unbelievable agony within the relationships that surrounded him from his early childhood till his death. He was a scholar, a warrior and a poet and for the last 13 years of his life, an invalid.
Kind David's poetry gives us entrance into his heart, which in the truest of all senses is the heart of all Israel.
His spiritual life was equally rich. The times of his failure were used springboards to almost unprecedented spiritual heights. His highest moments brought Him to intimacy with God. His poetry gives us entrance into his heart, which in the truest of all senses is the heart of all Israel, past and future. His words take our lives out of the isolation that we feel when we have no one to turn to.
It is for this reason that the Book of Psalms has been a source of solace for uncounted numbers of spiritual seekers, both Jews and non-Jews. Arguably, the 23rd Psalm is the most well known psalm, and it has taken a distinguished place in Western literature because of its universal message of trust in God, and its simplicity.
When we penetrate the psalm's exterior, surprises surface. Let us take it verse by verse, and as we allow ourselves to be moved by the power of the words, they will give form to the yearnings that are never as far from our hearts as we think them to be.
"THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD"
King David himself was a shepherd. He viewed his early days in which he spent in solitude and meditation as the best ones of his life. He was unaccompanied but never alone; he was his sheep's shepherd, but God was his shepherd, the One who cared for his every need with compassion and love.
Many of us dread even the most limited solitude.
Many of us dread even the most limited solitude. We try to avoid being alone, but isolation pursues us relentlessly. Everyone's life invariably has times in which we are alone. For some people old age is a time of unspeakable loneliness. For others even in the midst of productive careers and active social lives they feel unbearable isolation.
David sought out solitude. The hours that he spent in meditation and song were the sweetest of his lifetime. The reason for this, to quote the Song of Songs, is that he saw God as his Lover and his Friend. Surrounded by the beauty and the awesome silence of the pastures, he opened his heart, as he never could in the midst of the rough and tumble of most people's lives. At this juncture, the happiest period of David's life, he composed most of the psalms. Yet this was not the path that God had chosen for David. The years of solitude formed the core of his character, but its highest expression occurred when he had the opportunity to take the person he had become and use it to guide his people.
One of the great scholars of the 19th century, the Malbim, presents us with a relevant parable. Once there was a king who wanted to prepare his heir, the prince, for his future role as ruler. The prince, however, preferred to live alone in the forest, to meditate and to draw himself closer to God. He slept in a small lean-to that he had made.
One day the king sent his servants to start a fire that burnt the lean-to. When the prince returned and found that he had no shelter, the servants told him that they had found an abandoned shack not far from the area. He began to make the shack his home when another mysterious fire occurred, and another -- each one leading him slowly back to his original home. He recognized that this was an act of love by which his father drew him back to the palace -- not by force, but by letting him cultivate the spiritual traits that he wanted to develop and then keeping them within himself forever, even when he dwells in the palace.
"HE PASTURES ME IN THE PLEASANT GRASS, HE LEADS ME TO STILL WATERS. MY RESTLESS SOUL WAS LED IN RIGHTEOUS CIRCLES, FOR THE SAKE OF HIS NAME."
The next few sentences tell us the progression of events that took David from the peace of his early life to the turbulence of life as a king. His life appeared to be set in a pattern that could have endured till its last day. Then the first unexpected turn took place. His soul became restless. The more Goliath scorned everything that the Jews stood for, mocking their beliefs and integrity as a people, the more David realized that he couldn't bear the spiritual prison of passivity. Going back to our parable, his first refuge, the lean-to, had been burnt down. In retrospect, David recognized his unrest as being the first step. It gave birth to his embarking on a path from which he would never turn aside. He also came to recognize that the turmoil was a gift, one that brought him closer to knowing God unceasing support and love with more depth than he could have ever gained in his pastures with the sheep.
"EVEN THOUGH I WALK THE THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL BECAUSE YOU ARE WITH ME."
Our paths lead us to places that we have never imagined. Like David facing Goliath, we too find ourselves looking at death in the face when we least expect it.
Several months ago I had taken a friend with me to Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem. The bus left from Jerusalem at 5AM, heading towards Bethlehem. Once there, the stillness of the morning accompanied us to the interior of the building. The edifice that originally housed the tomb is now surrounded by a cement and steel structure that resembles a well-kept subway station. The prayers were fiery and silent, ending with shofar blowing and ancient biblical prayers invoking Gods mercy.
When I heard the gunshots, they seemed unreal, as though I was transposed to a western B movie. The soldiers unnecessarily cautioned us not to go outside. I don't know exactly how long the shooting continued outside our protective enclave. I saw my friend's face in the pale light, and what I read in her eyes was the recognition of the reality that I had avoided. This could be our last moment.
What I saw couldn't be described as fear. It was the look of absolute recognition that we will follow the Shepherd wherever He leads us.
What surprised me was that what I saw couldn't be described as fear. It was the look of absolute recognition that we will follow the Shepherd wherever He leads us. There was nothing heroic either in her response or in mine. We certainly didn't feel invincible. We felt small, helpless, but far from alone.
In truth we didn't have a close call. We were inside, and the action was outside. What we did recognize, at least for a few seconds, is that regardless of the external dangers that we face, we will never be abandoned.
"YOUR ROD AND STAFF COMFORT ME"
What's a shepherd without his rod? His staff is there to protect the sheep, not to attack them. When our lives are harsh and force us into confronting realities that we would rather not face, we sometimes confuse the staff with the shepherd. The one fact that must never be forgotten is that we are beloved.
This world is not a place of ease; it is a place of challenge. Our humanity is not challenged by comfort. The "rod of the shepherd” takes us to situations that give us the ability to discover what we are really made of. This is not only true in life-threatening situations, but even in the difficulties that are closer to a pebble in your shoe than like a sword at your throat.
My friend Esther had awful neighbors. Every Friday afternoon she had to "look forward” to their sweeping their weekly accumulation of debris onto her porch. This was accompanied by scarcely concealed hostility. The fact that Esther and her family shared their courtyard was met with a level of egoistic aggression that would have made Ayn Rand proud. Eventually the neighbors moved. Esther was jubilant, especially when the new neighbors turned out to be a sweet young couple.
The next day, when Esther went down to the Kotel, the Western Wall, an unexpected feeling of regret entered her consciousness. When looking at the ageless stones, she realized that in the grand scheme of things the days that she silently picked up the debris that her neighbor swept onto her porch had value. Those moments were ones in which her spiritual soul found expression.
"HE SETS A TABLE BEFORE ME IN FRONT OF MY ENEMIES"
Earlier in the psalm King David compares himself to a sheep following the shepherd. Through the challenges that God, the Shepherd, presented him, David's status has changed. He can no longer be compared to a sheep that eats grass. He is now described as a full human being. He has overcome his baser impulses. A sheep eats continually; a human can control his desire to eat and wait until mealtime. An animal and his food are almost organically inseparable. A human will invest his food with spiritual meaning through thanking God for his food, and esthetic meaning by eating at a set table.
"YOU HAVE ANOINTED MY HEAD WITH OIL, MY CUP OVERFLOWS"
David the shepherd eventually was anointed king, chosen by the entire nation. His personal evolution was no longer only his own, but influenced Jewish history indelibly.
"ONLY GOODNESS AND KINDNESS WILL PERUSE ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE. I WILL LIVE IN GODS HOUSE FOR THE LENGTH OF DAYS"
I will take the person I became through my years of isolation and prayer to the palace. No matter where I live, I will be in God's house.