Psalm 27: new insights for a sacred season

It is Jewish custom to read Psalm 27 from the start of Elul all the way through Sukkot, every day, every year, the same 14 verses, the same 149 Hebrew words, roughly 200 English words depending on the translation. On any given year, some readers may rejoice at the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend, other readers may sigh at the prospect of this repetitive ritual. On this year, as we enter Elul in the midst of a pandemic, all of us will surely see and hear these words as never before.
On Aug. 21 we, returning and rookie readers, will turn to the Psalm 27 and experience it anew. Why? Because the world has changed. Because the ways we see or hear, experience and reflect on the same words have changed. We know it to be true from our experience, reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle. We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way because of something or someone we encountered or considered. We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer, we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective. And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19, we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.
Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:1)
Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3)
How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4)
Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5)
How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6)
Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8)
Whom have we abandoned? (27:10)
On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12)
And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11)
When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer? Protect me, protect my loved ones, my co-workers, the most vulnerable, all of us? (27:7)
Are we ready to affirm the ancient words?
Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)
The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to this spiritual practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. You can find Psalm 27 in any Bible, in many daily/Shabbat prayer books or in the machzor for the High Holy Days. There are numerous commentaries to explore. “Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year” is an innovative guidebook, published last Elul, with a “Reflection for Focus” on a different verse for each day of the sacred season. It is an invitation to use music, silence, writing, celebration, forgiveness and gratitude each day as we make our way, together, with words to sustain us with courage and hope in a New Year of blessing.
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas. She is the author of “Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year,” published by CCAR Press. The book and its discussion guide are available at

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