Psalms I: The Shepherd ‎

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			The Psalms are unrivaled as the world’s most widespread liturgical literature. From deep into ‎Biblical times until the 21st century they have been used either as a primary source, ‎or the primary source, for communal and individual prayer among both Jews and Christians. ‎But the Psalms have been around the world for hundreds of years, around the western world ‎for over 1,000 years, and around the Middle East for over 2,000 years. While their influence ‎is probably declining in more economically advanced countries, they show no sign of heading ‎to the dustbin of literary history. ‎
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Among the Jews, the Psalms form the core of all prayer. It may be an exaggeration to say that ‎Psalms make up half of the prayers, but the estimate is not that far off. These timeless poems ‎of praise and thanksgiving express the essence of prayer itself. From the enthusiasm of ‎greeting the Shabbat queen, ‘Come let us sing to Hashem, let us shout to the Rock of our ‎salvation’ (95:1), to the depression of the supplication following the Amidah, ‘Hashem do not ‎rebuke me in Your anger, do not chastise me in Your rage’ (3:1), they express the height and ‎depth of human emotion. ‎
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These are the Psalms. They are as Biblical as Biblical can be, but they somehow touch even ‎the most jaded and cynical atheist at the right moment. There is one Psalm that, although ‎short and not particularly rousing, has probably touched the hearts of people more than any ‎other. This is Psalm 23. It is a simple Psalm, expressing the simple needs of everyday simple ‎people. But it as complex as the human soul. ‎
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‎‘A song to David, Hashem is my Shepherd, I shall lack for nothing. He makes me lie down in ‎pleasant grasses; by gentle waters He guides me. He restores my soul; He leads me on the ‎paths of righteousness for the sake of His name. Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of ‎death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff will comfort me. You ‎will arrange a table before me, opposite my enemies; You anointed my head with oil, my cup ‎overflows. Only good and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in ‎the house of Hashem for the length of (my) days’. ‎
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Analysis ‎
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Sheep are probably the most Biblical of animals. They are everywhere in the Bible, from real ‎sheep grazing around the mountain pastures to metaphorical sheep guided by God. This Psalm ‎uses the sheep/shepherd image right at the beginning. It sets the tone for the entire poem. But ‎what exactly is this image? Are we that dependent on God that we are like sheep under the ‎guidance of a shepherd? ‎
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There are other questions that may shed light on the imagery of this Psalm. How does God ‎‎‘restore the soul’? What is the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, and if it is as dreadful as it ‎sounds, why does the Psalmist fear no evil? The answer is right there, ‘because You are with ‎me’, but how does that help fend off the natural emotion of fear? Why is the table arranged ‎‎‘opposite my enemies? Why does the final verse say that ‘only goodness and kindness will ‎pursue me’ – shouldn’t it be that the Psalmist will pursue goodness and kindness rather than ‎the other way around? Finally, what does it mean to ‘dwell in the house of Hashem’? ‎
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God is the Shepherd. God guides us along the pleasant paths and the gentle waters. Are we ‎then the sheep? Yes, we are the sheep. But who wants to be a sheep? Who wants some divine ‎Shepherd leading them around from pasture to pasture, no matter how pleasant and gentle ‎those pastures are? ‎
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Perhaps the rest of this Psalm addresses that question. Let’s begin with ‘He restores my soul’. ‎Where did the soul go that it had to be restored? The word ‘nefesh’, which we have already ‎seen, is one of the three Biblical words for soul. The nefesh is probably most closely related to ‎what we call the ‘self’ – the unique aspects of a living being that make it what it is. ‎
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Hashem restores the self. When the life force is drained by the incessant emotional ‎and spiritual demands of life, something has to restore it. Something has to bring it back to ‎where it was before and to lead it beyond. We can do that ourselves, but it doesn’t always ‎work. Sometimes it is just too heavy a burden to bear by ourselves and we need help. But ‎there is always God. God works nights as a shrink and a mentor. God restores the self when it ‎is depleted and empty. Somehow, a little taste of God can bring that vitality back under even ‎the darkest of times. It may take a while, and it may be extremely subtle, but it does work. ‎
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The next verse is among the most famous in all of human literature: ‘Though I walk in the ‎valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me’. The valley of the ‎shadow of death – where is this valley? Where is there a valley that death’s shadow haunts ‎the roads? Why would anybody want to walk there? That valley, as we all know, could be ‎anywhere. Everywhere around us such a valley could materialize. We all must walk in it at ‎some point in life. Death is the one thing in life that is certain. It will hit us all, just as it hits ‎those around us. Some must face it many times, others only once in a blue moon. But we all ‎must walk that valley. ‎
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This Psalm, this timeless Psalm, takes us through that valley and assures us that there is no evil ‎to fear. There is plenty of evil, both in that valley and outside of it, but there is no need to ‎fear that evil. Why? Because ‘You are with me’. That simple awareness is enough to drive ‎away any fear of death or evil or anything else the valley can confront us with. Simply ‎knowing and feeling that God walks the path with us evaporates all the trepidation that evil ‎and death force us to face. If the Psalms gave the world only this line, if this verse alone ‎survived from over 2,500 years ago to reach our ears, the entire effort that went into the 150 ‎chapters of Psalms would have been worthwhile. This is wisdom, it is history, it is literature, it ‎is inspirational, it is Torah. These 11 Hebrew words (21 in our English translation) speak more ‎than a library of literature and philosophy. They are the essence of prayer, of human need and ‎divine assistance. ‎
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When evil is recognized as the enemy that it is, and when the remedy for the fear that it ‎causes is recognized as God, we can face our enemy with calm and serenity. That table is set, ‎we are ready to eat and enjoy, even though the enemy is right in front of us. The enemy may ‎be eating with us at the same table. The enemy may be at the next table over. It doesn’t really ‎matter. Whatever that enemy dishes out to us, we are ready. We can look the beast in the eye ‎and declare that we have no fear. We have a Shepherd. ‎
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The last two verses express an interesting idea. ‘Only good and kindness will pursue me all ‎the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of Hashem for long days’. Why are good ‎and kindness pursuing the Psalmist instead of the Psalmist pursuing good and kindness? First ‎of all, it doesn’t say that the Psalmist isn’t pursuing good and kindness. On the contrary, God ‎has led him down paths of righteousness. This verse deals with what happens to him. What ‎happens to the person who sees God as a Shepherd, who allows God to lead him to pleasant ‎paths of righteousness? What happens to the one whose soul is restored, whose cup is filled, ‎who head is anointed? What happens to the person who is able to face death and evil in the ‎eye and feel no fear because they know that God is with them wherever they go? ‎
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What happens is nothing short of amazing. Goodness and kindness pursue them. Wherever ‎they go, whoever they meet, they always find something good and kind. It doesn’t mean that ‎everybody they deal with will be a good and kind person. That would indeed be amazing. It ‎would also be like living in a fairy tale. It isn’t real. But they will always find that, no matter ‎how bad the situation is, no matter how awful the people they meet are, there is some ‎goodness and kindness lurking behind the veneer of evil and cruelty. That is what it means ‎that good and kindness will pursue. The person who is able to be shepherded by God will ‎never be able to run away from the feeling that goodness and kindness can be found ‎everywhere. Perhaps this is what it means to ‘dwell in the house of Hashem for long days’. ‎Those who come to see life as a path of meaning and purpose, see God as the Shepherd who ‎guides them along that path. They lack for nothing. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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This image needs no explanation. It is as evident as we want it to be. We may not imagine the ‎image of the Shepherd any longer, but that is just a reflection of the changing needs of the ‎times, not of the idea behind the image. How are we to perceive this image today if nobody ‎thinks of sheep and shepherds, of gentle waters, of staffs and rods, of anointing with oil? We ‎all know the answer to this question. There are modern versions of gentle waters and sheep. ‎Perhaps we need to imagine something more relevant like a divine Mentor who is there not ‎just once a week when we stop in for session, but all time, whenever we call. This Mentor ‎knows exactly what we need and exactly how to lead us to it. It may not be to a gentle ‎stream, but it may be to place to get away from it all and chill. ‎
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This Mentor has more in his or her bag of tricks than relaxation techniques. The Mentor can ‎help us deal with our deepest fears. We may not face death as often as they used to in ‎Biblical times, but we sure face just as much evil. Our own fears of evil, and perhaps of our ‎impending doom, can be paralyzing. To keep on walking may require a Mentor who can walk ‎that walk with you, even hold your hand when the going gets tough. We’ve already ‎encountered this talent of the Mentor with the footprints on the sand image. That is just of ‎the many things the Mentor specializes in. ‎
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Finally, there is the ever-present need for someone who goes beyond the normal criteria of ‎even the best mentor. This is the Mentor who can enable you to see how life is really good ‎even though it might not seem all that great. This, perhaps, is the most important thing the ‎divine Mentor can do for you. It means teaching you to gain a new perspective on life itself. ‎This is not the work of any old mentor. This is the work of the Mentor, who sticks with you ‎through thick and thin, and always welcomes you home. The Shepherd is the Biblical version ‎of the Mentor. Take whichever one works best for you. You will lack for nothing. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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Nobody can really argue with the benefits of such a Shepherd/Mentor. The only quibbles may ‎come from those who say that the whole idea smacks of the old ‘religious crutch’ problem. ‎What is the counter-argument? ‎


		


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