T’hillim 30

A psalm of David.  A song for the dedication of the House.

At this point in the Shabbat Shaḥrit service we have completed our daily prayers and readings and prepare now to enter into prayers and readings specific to the weekly Shabbat.  Our first reading, T’hillim 30, directs our attention to the jubilant dedication of our Holy Temple.

Imagine the excitement as we awaited the dedication!  For over 400 years we brought sacrifices to temporary structures, always aware that one day HaShem would reveal the location of Ha Makom (“the place where the L-rd your G-d will choose as a dwelling for His Name”).  Then, in a series of supposedly unrelated events, HaMeleḥ David bought a threshing floor so he could build an altar to stay a terrible plague (2 Shmu’el 24).  

That seemingly nondescript threshing floor was Ha Makom, the Temple Mount.  Some time later David declared to HaNavi Natan, “Here, I’m living in a cedar-wood palace; but the ark for the covenant of Ad-nai is kept under a tent!” That same night Natan received a vision and reported back – David is forbidden to build the House, yet due to his great desire to do so HaShem promises that David’s house and throne will last forever (1 Chronicles 17).  David, known as the man after G-d’s own heart, spent his final years gathering supplies and amassing treasures for building a House that he did not live to see. 

2 Chronicles 5 – 7 describe HaMeleḥ Shlomo’s dedication of the House as a majestic seven-day celebration replete with Levitical music, impassioned prayers, and sacrifices in abundance. Coincident with Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret (Tishrei 15 – 21, 22), “on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly, having observed the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days.  Then, on the twenty-third day of the seventh month, he sent the people away to their tents full of joy and glad of heart for all the goodness Ad-nai had shown to David, to Shlomo and to Isra’el His people.” (2 Chronicles 7:9-10)

As we read through T’hillim 30, notice how the center section feels like a private struggle in the midst of HaMaleḥ David’s public song.  His inner conflict is familiar to anyone who has embraced a task of great magnitude or eternal consequence – exultation (“I shall never be shaken”) interspersed with despondency (“Can dust thank You?).  This t’hillah, read without the center section, is inspiring and triumphant; the center section, though, is what makes it personal, palpable, real. 

“I will exalt You, L-rd, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. 

L-rd, my G-d, I cried to You for help and You healed me.  L-rd, You lifted my soul from the grave; You spared me from going down to the pit.  Sing to the L-rd, you His devoted ones, and give thanks to His holy name.  For His anger is for a moment, but His favor for a lifetime.  At night there may be weeping, but in the morning there is joy.

“When I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be shaken.”  L-rd, when You favored me, You made me stand firm as a mountain, but when You hid Your face, I was terrified.  To You, L-rd, I called; I pleaded with my L-rd: “What gain would there be if I died and went down to the grave?  Can dust thank You?  Can it declare Your truth?  Hear, L-rd, and be gracious to me; L-rd, be my help.”

“You have turned my sorrow into dancing.  You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent.  L-rd my G-d, for ever will I thank You.” [T’hillim 30]

Through T’hillim 30 we traverse Har haBayit; it surrounds us, eclipsing awareness of everything else as we “enter His gates with thanksgiving, enter His courts with praise.”  We have ascended the Southern steps; as we continue now through the Gates to the Courts we see the House within which the Heiḥol and the Kodesh Kodeshim are located.  Standing at a height of 100 cubits (approximately 150 feet), the House towers over the familiar walls (40 feet) which surround the Old City of Jerusalem.

After the celebration’s finale, after everyone has been sent home, HaShem visited HaMaleḥ Shlomo (2 Chronicles 7).  This is the famous exchange during which HaShem grants Shlomo his world-renowned measure of wisdom.  HaShem’s parting words, so abrupt and unexpected, described the future destruction of our magnificent Temple.

How poignant that HaShem chose to foretell the destruction of His House on the night following one of the grandest celebrations in recorded history.  Yet because of this we relate to T’hillim 30’s mix of grief and joy, of despondency and hope; because of this we can celebrate the Holy Temple, mourn its loss, and anticipate the time when it again will stand during the reign of Mashiaḥ.


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.

Mah Tovu

“How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwelling places O Yisra’el. As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O Hashem, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory resides. I shall prostrate myself and bow, I shall kneel before Hashem my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You, Hashem, be at an opportune time; O Hashem, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.”

B’Midbar 24:5

This prayer, traditionally sung as we enter synagogue for services, is a combination of five separate verses; one from B’Midbar and the rest from four different Tehillim. This simple device is a clarion call to us, urging us to pause and to look carefully at this prayer and to study the source context of the individual verses to better understand the prayer’s overall intent.

The first verse quotes Bil’am, a gentile prophet. Hired by Balak, king of Mo’av, to curse Yisra’el, Bil’am instead blesses Yisra’el. This was not due to any special affinity he had toward Yisra’el; rather, Bil’am was given a vision of Yisra’el from Hashem – the praise and blessings then poured forth.

This is a beautiful and compassionate prelude for worshippers entering Schul. Jewish worshipers rejoice in Hashem’s sovereignty over all creation as they recount Bil’am’s words praising The Nation. Any apprehension gentiles may feel by entering an unfamiliar setting is eased as they join with the gentile prophet Bil’am in praising and blessing Yisra’el.

The next four verses are from Tehillim 5, 26, 95, and 69. All four of these Tehillim are fraught with wicked and violent images. The particular verses cited in Mah Tovu are warm rays of sunshine from the midst of darkness, shining in stark contrast to the dangers and worldly concerns which otherwise abound in these Tehillim.

The beginning of the final verse, “As for me, may my prayer to You . . . ” can also be translated, “I am my prayer to You.” This is a humbling reminder that, while we may at times attempt to detach our secular lives from our prayers, Hashem draws no such distinction. The totality of our lives, our choices, our actions, is our prayer to Hashem.

These are the words and images which prepare us as we enter synagogue for services. We are entering a special place; we are entering a special time. Mah Tovu re-aligns our minds, our thoughts, and our hearts so we can worship Hashem without distraction or hesitation.

Mah Tovu is our gentle stroll as we enter synagogue, bringing to mind the worshipers who centuries ago climbed the Southern steps of the Har HaBayit in Yerushalayim. The steps, intentionally varied in height and depth, forced worshipers to pause and reflect on the holiness of the place they were about to enter. Some scholars connect the fifteen interspersed long steps to the fifteen Tehillim of Ascent (120 – 134). Worshipers would sing the Tehillim, one by one, as they paused on each of the long steps.

Mah Tovu, in essence, offers us a time of preparation. Our challenge, and our joy, is to embrace the period of quiet reflection as we and those around us get ready to worship with The Nation.

May He answer us with the truth of His Salvation.