Psalms I: The Shepherd
What is God?
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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.
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.
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.
‘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’.
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?
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’?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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