Why is this psalm an important part of the spiritual preparation for the High Holidays?
Elul is the month of preparation and shofar blowing. The name of the month has been understood to be an acronym for the Hebrew verse "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." During Elul we read Psalm 27, "To David - the Lord is my light," twice daily. This practice is relatively new, evidently some 200 years old. But it is a wise practice, even essential.
The first half of the psalm bespeaks assurance. The psalmist, while describing the enemy from a distance (from whom will I be afraid), approaching (as evil men come near), preparing (should an army besiege me), and attacking (should war come against me), nevertheless is calm, above all danger, sacrificing and thanking the Lord. The opening structure reflects both the growing threat and its total disappearance. The first three verses increase numerically: two parallel phrases of five words each, then six, then seven (that number hinting at completion). There follows the central word of the psalm, One. Facing all these threats, the psalmist feels the peace of unity, and throughout this first half the reader senses no doubt, no real threat.
How strange it is that the second half of the psalm depicts a world so totally opposite. (Many scholars even conclude that these are separate psalms!) Here we find a desperate search, a constant request, a pleading before the Holy One ("do not hide Your face ... do not thrust [me] aside ... do not forsake me, do not abandon me"). The author is abandoned by parents and surrounded by enemies. At the apex of this section, the psalmist cries out in agony, with a sentence he cannot finish, for it depicts the worst of all: Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living .... His faith is his sole remaining thread connecting him to the land of the living. If he did not have this faith, then ...
But the two psalms are indeed one. Hebrew roots carefully repeated in the two halves testify to unity, as does the clear inclusion: the name of God opens and closes the first half (The Lord is my light ... a hymn to the Lord) and the second (Hear O Lord ... look to the Lord).
Throughout the second half, the reader hears the echo of the central term: One. The psalmist cries out, demands, asks and pleads that his two worlds are one. I, the sufferer, depressed to the ultimate limits, am that same I who trusts, who is safe, who sits in the presence of the Lord.
For us, this is ideal preparation. Before we can approach repentance or the joy of the Holiday, we must honestly confront again our own faith and belief. Ever since our father Abraham, we have anticipated the rewards of God's protection, but too often we have seen our trials and tribulations as challenges to our faith. The psalmist testifies once again that love of the Holy One is achieved, not by closing one's eyes, but, even as with less significant loves, through effort, honesty, and open confrontation.
The psalm demands oneness, reflecting an integration of most difficult circumstances together with security. The psalmist is model, puzzle, and challenge to us, for he did not hide from life's troubles on one hand, and yet lives within a framework of faith on the other. Reciting this psalm demands that twice a day we struggle with ourselves and our faith, in expectation that we will arrive at the Days of Awe ready for repentance, ready to celebrate on the holiday with a full heart before the Lord.
In Elul, we renew our faith through search, as is also reflected in the modern midrash on this psalm, "One have I demanded of the Lord, that I shall seek: I seek only that forever I will demand the one, demand the oneness, demand the unity, from the Lord."
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