September 7, 2012: Psalm 27 and Jewish Spiritual "Jihad" (Ki Tavo)

If I were marooned on a desert island and could select only one psalm in the entire liturgy to accompany me, it would be Psalm 27. Its emotional power derives in part from its literary structure, the same tight tripartite construction that characterizes the much shorter twenty-third psalm. Both psalms open with a bold declaration of faith: “Adonai is my light and my help; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) “Adonai is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1) Part way through both psalms, the poet shifts dramatically from the third person to the second person. He stops making abstract theological statements about God, and starts appealing to God directly: “Adonai, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me, and answer!” (Psalm 27:7) “Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff–they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) Most of the time, we stride through life with bright self-confidence, rejecting any thought that we could ever be shaken. It’s relatively easy to profess faith when things are going well. Then, something happens: we lose our job, we are given a medical diagnosis, a loved one dies—God forbid! In times of darkness, it is the most human reaction in the world to cry out to God for solace and strength. (I’ll never forget holding hands and reading Psalm 27 as a chaplain in the waiting room at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital to a devout Christian, while his wife was undergoing brain surgery to remove a malignant tumor.) However, whereas Psalm 23 returns to sunny assurances in the final verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Eternal forever,” our psalm, to my mind, resonates even more powerfully, because it ends on a note of uncertainty. Our translation in the penultimate stanza: “Yet I have faith that I shall surely see Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living,” (Psalm 27:13) neutralizes the desperate longing of the original Hebrew. More accurately, the Hebrew reads something like: “If I weren’t to believe that I would see the goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living…”—and here, the poets cuts himself off in mid-sentence, as if he couldn’t bear the thought of a world without God. The repetition of the final exhortation: “hope in Adonai; be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai,” (Psalm 27:14) belies that he can’t quite convince himself to do so.

As a pacifist by temperament, I tend to push aside the militant language of many of the Psalms, including Psalms 27 and 23. Battle-scene images, such as “though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear,” (Psalm 27:3) repel me (although I must add that the same Dartmouth patient whom I counseled, the one with brain cancer, resonated deeply with these lines, because she had two sons serving in Iraq at the time). My greatest fears, however, are not so much soldiers or even terrorists, but closer to home—things like failure, or loneliness, or the loss of financial security, or—yes—illness and death. Moreover, I dislike the triumphant, almost vindictive, overtones of verses such as: “God will raise my head high above my enemies,” (Psalm 27:6) or: “You have set a table before me in the presence of my foes.” (Psalm 23:5)

A turning point in my understanding of Biblical poetry occurred when I realized that terms such as “enemies” and “foes” are not to be taken literally. The Spark Notes to the Bible attest as follows: “Despite the sheer number and variety of the psalms, the metaphors throughout the one hundred and fifty poems are consistent. The poet’s enemies, [for example,] may be figurative depictions of [any] encroaching spiritual evil.” ( section13.rhtml) My friend and Rabbinical School colleague Pamela Greenberg, whose magnificent new translation of the Book of Psalms came out last year, translates accordingly: not “God will raise my head high above my enemies,” but “Now, God, raise my head above the troubles that surround me;” not “You have set a table before me in the presence of my foes,” but “You spread a table before me in the face of my greatest fears.” Indeed, the Hebrew word tzar means both “enemy” as well as “troubles,” like the derivative Yiddish word tzuros.

The deployment of military language and imagery to depict spiritual concerns is a common application not only in Judaism, but also in Islam. One of the most unfortunate and damaging misconceptions among non-Muslims is our limited and warped understanding of the Arabic word jihad. Its plain meaning is “struggling” or “striving.” Just as tzar has two meanings, either “enemy” or “troubles” depending upon context, jihad also has multiple meanings. It could indeed entail armed struggle, called “jihad of the sword,” but more often, it entails spiritual struggle, called “jihad fi Allah,” literally: “struggle in God.” The expression “jihad fi Allah” is an exact translation into Arabic of the word Israel, Yisra’eil, “one who struggles with God.” During my third year in Rabbinical School, I was fortunate to take an introductory course in Islam, taught by the distinguished South African theologian on leave at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub. In his book Islam: Faith and History, Professor Ayoub writes: “The greatest and most fundamental striving is the jihad of the spirit, which was called by the Prophet ‘the greater jihad.’ [It] is the struggle of every person against the evil of their own carnal soul. As Allah declares in the Quran: ‘as for those who strive in [Me,] I shall guide them in [My] ways…,’ [which] are the ways of peace. The goal of true jihad is to attain perfect harmony between submission [to God,] faith [in God,] and righteous living.” (p. 68)

The aim of spiritual jihad in Islam comes very close to the Jewish aim of teshuvah, the spiritual process in which we are engaged as we prepare for the High Holidays. Teshuvah literally means “return”—return to God’s ways, return to righteous living. Here is a clue, I believe, as to why the sages prescribed the daily public reading of Psalm 27 throughout this period of the year. If we accept that our greatest fears are not physical threats, but spiritual ones, if we admit that our greatest struggles are not without, but within, then the final rally: “be strong, take courage,” means “be strong in the face of your fears, take courage to make amends.” And the enjoinder: “hope in Adonai,” repeated in the final verse, means: Someone up there is watching over me, that Someone cares about every moral choice I make, and that Someone will remember me, long after others have forgotten.