The season of the Yamim Nora'im - "The Days of Awe" - has assumed a place of such importance in the Jewish year that an entire month is devoted to preparing ourselves for it. Elul - the month that begins this coming week - is our opportunity to sensitize ourselves to the themes of repentance and renewal that those days represent.
From the first day of Elul until the end of Succot, it is customary to sound the shofar at the morning service and recite Psalm 27 morning and evening. The shofar serves as a wake-up call, a warning signal, telling us that we must not be complacent, but must begin to scrutinize ourselves, think of our past deeds and determine to change for the better. Elul should be a month in which we tremble, and the sound of the shofar adds to that feeling.
The same is true of Psalm 27. Of all the psalms available, why was this one chosen? There is no explicit mention of the Days of Awe in it, although rabbinic interpretation has found intimations. First of all, there is the Hebrew word lulei (unless) in verse 13 that is Elul in reverse (in Hebrew). Then there is the mention of succo (His tabernacle) in verse 5. In Midrash Tehillim, the first verse - "The Lord is my light and my help" is interpreted as: "The Lord is my light" refers to Rosh Hashana, the day of judgment; "my help" refers to Yom Kippur, when God saves us and forgives all of our sins.
All of that aside, it is really the content of the psalm that makes it so appropriate to this period of time. It can be divided into three sections. In the first part, the writer appears to express a feeling of complete confidence. "The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life, whom shall I dread?" His foes stumble and fall. Even though there are armies poised against him, he has no fear. He has trust in God. This section resembles the more famous Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," which is an expression of complete faith and trust in God.
The second part of Psalm 27, however, begins a new theme that is not found in Psalm 23. It is a feeling of deep concern. He cries out to God - "Hearken, O Lord, to my voice" (vs. 7), "Do not hide Your face from me" (vs. 9). It seems that the total confidence of the first section was really a bluff, an attempt at denying the deep fears the psalmist has. When one feels that God's face is hidden, one is deeply afraid and feels truly abandoned. A few verses later we discover there are false witnesses against him, those who seek to use violence against him (vs. 12). This man is in deep trouble. Knowing this, we look back at the opening verses and note that even there his confidence was not complete. He did not say, "I shall not fear; I shall not dread"; rather, he voiced a question: "Whom shall I fear? Whom shall I dread?" His syntax betrays his inner fears.
In the third and last section of the psalm, he seeks to regain a feeling of confidence. He can go on only because he has faith in God's eventual help and goodness. In a broken, incomplete sentence he voices this feeling: Were it not that I trust that I will see God's goodness in the land of the living (vs. 13). And in the final verse (14), he speaks to himself, trying to give himself the strength and confidence he needs to face the trials and the enemies that confront him. "Hope in the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage and hope in the Lord!" Understood properly, this is not a simple psalm of confidence, but a masterful description of the state of mind of a desperate person, seeking the strength needed to survive the perils of life, searching for the confidence needed to meet enemies and foes, no matter how difficult the situation. Without hope in God, he says, he would indeed be lost.
Is this not the universal situation? Does it not speak deeply to the human condition? If these days are truly "Days of Awe," they are troubling times. They present us with the truth, which is that life is not easy, that we are not perfect and that we are constantly presented with challenges both within and without - challenges to control our own actions and challenges from others and from life. Therefore we need to be constantly on guard, constantly aware and constantly strengthening ourselves - not with false and superficial panaceas but with the hope that, trusting in the existence of God, we will find our way through the perils of life.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.