Elul, the month before Tishrei, is known as the month of preparation. Our season of introspection / preparation begins after Shvuot, continues through the Three Weeks, and concludes on Yom Kippur. During Elul our preparations intensify; reading Tehillim 27 (l’David) is part of our daily life from Rosh Ḥodesh Elul to Shmini Atzeret. There is much to learn from this beautiful tehillah as David’s words remind us, challenge us, and inspire us.
The first verse includes two references to HaShem, signifying two aspects of our relationship with Him. Our connection is intense during specific days such as Rosh Hashanah (“my light”) and Yom Kippur (“and salvation”); we also enjoy Hashem’s unwavering daily presence (“the stronghold of my life).”
“HaShem is my light and salvation; whom do I need to fear? HaShem is the stronghold of my life; of whom should I be afraid?”Tehillim 27:1
David then uses a poetic device which defies intuition; he proclaims that his trust in Hashem actually increases as the dangers he faces become imminent. First, he considers past conflicts with “evildoers; adversaries, and foes,” remembering how they stumbled and fell. Then, as “an army encamps,” he anticipates the approaching combat with confidence, declaring “my heart will not fear.” Finally, as “war breaks out” and he is in the midst of battle, his unwavering trust is demonstrated with the proclamation, “even then I will keep trusting.”
“When evildoers assailed me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and foes, they stumbled and fell. If an army encamps against me, my heart will not fear; if war breaks out against me, even then I will keep trusting.”Tehillim 27:2-3
As though suspended in a dream in the midst of battle, David shifts his focus away from his warrior life. David contemplates life in the house (בית) of HaShem, His temple (היכל), His shelter (סכה), His tent (אהל). It is here that we see an allusion to Sukkot (סוכות), completing the High Holy Days references.
“Just one thing have I asked of HaShem; only this will I seek: to live in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to see the beauty of HaShem and visit in His temple. For he will conceal me in His shelter on the day of trouble, He will hide me in the folds of His tent, He will set me high on a rock.”Tehillim 27:4-5
David envisions himself living in HaShem’s presence, high above his enemies. Unable to contain his joy, he bursts forth with shouts of joy and songs of praise.
“Then my head will be lifted up above my surrounding foes, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, sing praises to HaShem.”Tehillim 27:6
David’s vision starts to fade, and he aches to reconnect with HaShem. Knowing that HaShem is his only help, his sole salvation, his source of sustenance, his steadfast protection, his true path, we hear David’s desperate plea:
“Listen, HaShem, to my voice when I cry; show favor to me; and answer me. ‘My heart said of you, ‘Seek my face.’’ Your face, HaShem, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, don’t turn your servant away in anger. You are my help; don’t abandon me; don’t leave me, G-d my savior. Even though my father and mother have left me, HaShem will care for me, Teach me your way, HaShem; lead me on a level path because of my enemies – don’t give me up to the whims of my foes; for false witnesses have risen against me, also those who are breathing violence.”Tehillim 27:7-12
Suddenly David cries out in agony. Too overwhelmed to finish his thought, realizing that HaShem is everything and he is nothing, he falters –
“If I hadn’t believed that I would see HaShem’s goodness in the land of the living . .”Tehillim 27:13
– recovering, he joyfully concludes:
“Put your hope in HaShem, be strong, and let your heart take courage! Yes, put your hope in HaShem!”Tehillim 27:14
David leaves us with an impassioned appeal to קוה HaShem. The variety of translations – hope in / wait upon / look to – is a clear indicator that the word is difficult to translate. The overall concept is of our/Israel’s mutual expectant waiting & watching for a sure thing.
The High Holy Days are the culmination of months of preparation during which we examine our lives, our choices, our relationship with HaShem. As we read this beautiful tehillah twice daily, let us endeavor to heed David’s exhortation to קוה – to expectantly wait and watch with complete certainty, along with the Nation – for HaShem.
Noting that David includes HaShem’s name thirteen times in this tehillah, the sages consider it a reminder of the Thirteen Attributes, so prominent in our Sliḥot and Yom Kippur liturgy:
“The L-rd, the L-rd, G-d, Compassionate, Gracious, Slow to anger, Abundant in Kindness, Abundant in Trust, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, Forgiver of willful sin, Forgiver of error, Who cleanses.”Shmot 34:6-7
May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year in the Book of Life.