By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
The Bible is the most popular book of all times. Though it is difficult to define one particular section as the most well-known, Psalm 23 (The Israel Bible pp. 1497-1498) is certainly a possible candidate for this auspicious title. Even those who are secular can recite the first few verses of this psalm after being prompted with, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at this psalm, which has become a go-to recitation for those in need of divine salvation.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish educator Tziporah Heller referred to Psalm 23 as perhaps the best-known of the psalms due to “its universal message of trust in God, and its simplicity.”
In Jewish tradition, this psalm is sung during the third Sabbath meal, and some have the custom to recite it at each of the three Sabbath meals. This practice comes from famed Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria (1534 – 1572), known as the Arizal. Since the theme of the psalm is trust in God, and we are forbidden to work on the Sabbath, we recite this psalm as a way of proclaiming our trust in God as being the one who provides for us and sustains us.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki explains this psalm in the context of the Jews’ journey through the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Though they faced many trials and tribulations such as hunger and thirst, one verse stands out as being different from the rest:
And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there beside the water. (Exodus 15:27, The Israel Bible p. 176)
What was the purpose of this stop in the desert? In contrast to the others, everything at this stop seems to work at well for the Children of Israel.
Rabbi Wolicki explains that as opposed to the other stops in the desert where the people faced different challenges, the stop at Elim seemed to be perfect. Why?
Rabbi Wolicki explains:
There are times when the Lord provides everything for us exactly according to our precise needs and wants. And then there are times when our firm footing is shaken, and we are in transition or even crisis. There is a tendency to think about God a lot more when we are in trouble than when all seems right with our lives. When we are in crisis we cry out to God in prayer; we make commitments to Him; we seek Him. But what about when things are fine? What about the “Elim” moments in our lives? Are we as engaged in relationship with the Lord when everything seems just perfect as we are when our needs are acute?
The more we acknowledge God’s hand in providing for us when things are good, the more strength of faith we will have when times are difficult. Elim gives us strength.
In times of uncertainty and transition, the true way of faith is to say, “Lord, I know from past-experience, when times were good and stable, that You were with me. If You were with me then, I know that You are with me now.”
Rabbi Wolicki writes that this is precisely the message of the second verse of Psalm 23. Just as God brought us to “lie down in green pastures” during the good times in our lives, so too we trust that He is leading us through hard times towards “water in places of repose” (verse 2, The Israel Bible p. 1497).
So why does God have us experience hardship and difficulties? Rabbi Wolicki further explains:
When we experience the guiding hand of the Lord getting us through tough times; when God restores our souls and brings us back to a stronger relationship to Him, we remind ourselves that God does this for a reason. God wants us to spread knowledge of Him by building intimacy and relationship with us through these circumstances. He wants us to be His agents on this earth, sharing who He is and His goodness with others.
Indeed, the Jews have always felt the presence of God as a caring shepherd, close at hand in times of need. Psalm 23 has stood by the Jewish people as their support through the darkest days of persecution and exile. Over the centuries, no evil murderer or terrible tragedy has been able to crush the resilient spirit of the Jews, when they remember that “You are with me” (verse 4, The Israel Bible p. 1498).
But God doesn’t just save us for our sake. He does it for the sake of His own name (verse 3, The Israel Bible p. 1498). In the words of Rabbi Wolicki, “God performs acts of redemption and salvation in our lives so that we will increase knowledge of Him in the world.”
When things are going well for us we must recognize that God is the source of our success and tranquility. And when we go through difficult times, we must remember that just as He was with us during the good times, He is guiding us through the challenging times as well. And we must always remember that our job is to spread God’s light in this world.