It has become traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to read psalm 27 in the morning and evening prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, a custom first mentioned by Jacob Emden in his siddur published 1745. One suggestion for why this psalm became so important to this long period of reflection is the first line – “God is my light and my salvation” which was glossed by the rabbis as referring to Rosh Hashanah (Light) and Yom Kippur (Salvation), and the further reference to the sukkah in verse 5 leads to the extension of the period of reading.
It is an extraordinary psalm, turning on its head the traditional journey of penitential prayer from darkness to light, and instead begins with great confidence before descending into fear and anxiety, and then the psalmist seems to force himself into a more hopeful frame of mind.
The psalm divides into three sections, each with its particular mood and style. The first six verses show an almost superhuman faith and confidence that God will support the psalmist against whatever comes to try to harm him. But then from verse 7 doubt begins to creep into psalmist’s mind. Beginning by asking God to hear when he calls, he descends into his terror of abandonment – not only by his own parents but by God’s face also being hidden from him. By verse 12 he is fearful, begging God not to deliver him to his enemies. False witnesses are rising against him, there is the prospect of terrible violence. In this middle section the psalmist speaks directly to God in the second person, unlike the bookended sections where God is spoken of in the third person. And yet, even as he addresses God directly, it is clear that he cannot be certain God is listening.
The third and final section does not take us to any uplifting certainty – indeed the rather complacent faith of the beginning of the poem has been stripped away, and the psalmist is left with the need to remind himself of the need for courage, to hope for a salvation that may or may not come.
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:
The final line, with the psalmist telling himself to be strong and to strengthen his heart/ mind, bookended with “wait in expectation for God” is about as high an aspiration for Elul as can exist.
The earliest confidence of the psalm is that of the unthinking believer, who simply never questions and who holds the kind of faith that is unsustainable when it meets reality. The doubt and fear that enter the heart of the psalmist in the middle section are reasonable responses to the crises and everyday pains of life – We can feel alone and abandoned, God does not answer our prayers as we would like, and it is the qualified confidence, the need for hope, the expectation of a better outcome that feels real and normative.
The very middle of the psalm has a line that is so ambiguous it almost defies translation, yet clearly is the pivot of the piece. In verse 8 we read
לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:
It is variously understood to mean
“On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek” or
“My heart says to you “Seek me out”—[because] I am seeking you out God.”
Or (Rashi’s understanding) “on Your behalf my heart says ‘Seek out My face”, and the second half of the verse is the psalmists response “I will seek Your face”
Or “To You my heart spoke, my face sought out your face God”
Or ““Of You my heart said “seek My face”, Your face God I do seek” (Robert Alter)
Who exactly is speaking in this verse? Is God sending a message to humanity via their hearts, calling on them to reach out for God? Is this a reciprocal statement where we ask God to seek us because we are seeking God?
The ambiguity speaks to the moment. There is no real clarity in faith, no real certainty that all will be well. Communication with God is often realised after the event, when we recognise we were praying, or when we feel comforted without fully being aware of when or how that comfort came about.
There are so many reasons given why the Ashkenazim read this psalm 100 times in 50 days, from the idea of salvation in verse one, to the “coded message” of the word לׄוּלֵ֣ׄאׄ
in verse 13, (It spells Elul backwards). Whenever there are many answers to a question, we can know only that the answer is not known. But I think this psalm has a powerful capacity to challenge us at this time, to remind us that blind faith is complacent and childish, that doubt and fear are reasonable and normal human responses to life, and that the only real way through is to strengthen one’s self, to hope, to believe and know that hope is a reasonable tool to deal with doubt and fear. And with that message ringing in our ears we travel through Ellul onto Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim….