Psalm 27 is traditionally added to the service during all of Elul. I’ve often asked myself why. A lot of the text concerns protection from enemies. I wonder why our ancestors might have felt that particular need in the month leading up the the יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im, the ten Days [full of] Awe. Surely this year we can empathize with the world as a precarious place, but that started for us well before Elul. So why this psalm now?
Perhaps it has to do with the way that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur challenge us to take stock of our lives in light of our mortality. Praying for health and safety is a very human response to unsettled times, and the High Holy Days heighten our awareness.
Another part of the psalm offers another connection: It talks about reaching out for God. If you don’t like the word God, substitute something that works for you: cosmos, higher power, spirit of creation. It’s about reaching out for what is of eternal value, for what transcends this moment and connects us to something greater than our individual selves. This is a vital part of the High Holy Days: Anchoring ourselves in something more enduring than the present moment.
One thing I ask from the Eternal, this do I desire:
That I may dwell in the house of the Eternal all the days of my life,
To gaze upon God’s beauty and to visit God’s House. (Psalm 27:4)
What does it mean, “God’s house”? Isn’t God everywhere?
And of course that is the point. Beauty and deep meaning and awe abound in this world! But for most of us it’s impossible to be aware of that beauty and wonder all the time. We have to encourage ourselves to direct our attention beyond the mundane — to “gaze upon” what really matters with our inner and outer eyes.
During Elul we work on making this our desire, so we enter Rosh HaShanah with our focus already sharpened.
Our Berith Sholom congregant Audrey Seidman recorded a lyrical interpretation of Psalm 27 by Rabbi Yael Levy and sent it to be shared. The file is too big to upload to this blog, so click here to listen to her read the psalm and blow shofar.
This Elul, may you open your eyes to gaze on what really matters, and anchor yourself to what will truly endure.