Book review: The meaning behind the words

Rabbi Robbins’s book seeks to bring the ancient words of the psalmist to life.

THE SHOFAR and prayers are supposed to help us with introspection but that is not always easy. A father holds a shofar for his daughter to blow. (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
THE SHOFAR and prayers are supposed to help us with introspection but that is not always easy. A father holds a shofar for his daughter to blow.
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
Each year between the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul and the end of Sukkot we have the custom of reading Psalm 27 twice a day. Some people read it once after Shaharit (morning prayers) and once after Maariv (evening prayers), and some read it once after Shaharit and once after Minha (afternoon prayers). It is read for a total of 50 days or 100 times. Though we do not know exactly when Jews began engaging in this practice, it certainly has been done for hundreds of years.
Each year, when Rosh Hodesh Elul approaches, I search for a meaningful commentary and explanation of the psalm that will enable me to read it during the holiest time of the Jewish year with deep concentration. This is because when I read something over and over, I often fall into the trap of reciting it by rote. This frequently occurs when I read the daily prayers.  I thus knew that I needed to do some work in advance so that I could experience the 100 repetitions of Psalm 27 in a way that is spiritually moving.
Rabbi Debra Robbins has developed a beautiful and moving approach to Psalm 27 that provides the setting and the opportunity to think about what we are reciting throughout the 50 days. The book guides us as we explore each verse on its own, and for each she has provided a poetic interpretation that encourages us to think about its meaning in the context of the entire psalm. She has divided her analysis into four sections: the month of Elul, the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and the days of Sukkot.
The meaning of each verse is related both to Psalm 27 and to the special period of time during which it is recited. Thus the book encourages readers to think about the meaning of the psalm during each of the four periods of the season of introspection, evaluation, and renewal from Elul to Sukkot. Its overarching question is how Psalm 27 can have an impact on our behavior and how we interact with the people in our lives during this special season. It prevents us from telling ourselves that we have recited Psalm 27 for years and that doing it again could not be any different this time around. The reality that Robbins points out is that the world has changed, we have changed, and those around us have changed, so nothing is really the same.
To help us take in and apply her insights, she provides an introductory section titled “A Note to Readers” that offers some explanations and suggestions of how to use the text. There is also a “Composer’s Commentary” by Cantor Richard Cohn for people who may connect more strongly with the words and images by hearing the verses sung. The introductory section ends with suggestions for the daily recitation of Psalm 27 and blessings we may want to think about and recite as a way of setting a tone for our prayers.
The book is based on Rabbi Richard Levy’s recent translation of the psalm, which is provided before Robbins analyzes the text verse by verse. It can be a very special experience to read the text each day as per your practice and then to focus your thought process or meditation on a particular verse – on the issues Robbins explores as she offers interpretations of its meaning.
Since there are many more days than the 14 verses of the psalm, she provides several perspectives on some of the verses. Here is Psalm 27:1:
“Of David.
Adonai is my light and my victory – From whom should I feel fright?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life – From whom should I feel terror?”
In her text she offers us the following:
“I say, I am shaking, I’m afraid,” or maybe, “I’ve been shaken –
Physically, emotionally, spiritually by an intense encounter.
I breathe, I wait, the shaking stops, the calm returns,
I move again, but I am changed.”
In Opening Your Heart With Psalm 27, Robbins gives us ways to grapple with this text in the context of this special time of year – encouraging us to think about how we can use the rhythm and meaning of the Jewish year to look at our lives and ourselves through biblical poetry. Her book is an  instrument to aid us in making these intense 50 days even more meaningful and enriching.
I would encourage you to use Opening Your Heart With Psalm 27 to make the most of your prayers and meditations during this High Holiday season.
The writer is a retired faculty member of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s MA program in non-profit management.