I only ever read Psalm 23 during funerals and shiva minyanim, and sometimes on a hospital visit or at a deathbed. When I am experiencing my own moments of turmoil, there are other Psalms that I reach for – those who sew in tears will reap in joy, joy comes in the morning, my mourning will be turned to dancing – basically anything Debbie Friedman ever set to music. But the 23rd Psalm is one that I only reach for as a Rabbi. It’s for others. It’s for the masses. It’s comforting because it’s familiar.
But I wonder how many of us ever really think about the words themselves. We murmur it. Relaxing into it like an old friend. And we wait for the line – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and we emphasize it. That’s what it’s all about, right? God, is with us in our darkest moments. God is walking next to us through whatever terrible valley we find ourselves wandering. It implies that God will help us out of the valley as well.
But what about the rest of it?
Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the earlier lines. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.
What’s that all about?
Aren’t green pastures and still waters places we’d want to be voluntarily? Why must we be made to walk there? Why must we be led?
Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the merits of being forced to pray in moments when prayer is uncomfortable – maybe even infuriating. It felt like Prayer was the green pasture, and the still water – a peaceful place where I wasn’t sure I deserved to be. Or maybe I didn’t feel God deserved it. But when God led me to prayer and made me participate, I found that I was grateful. That the place I was avoiding, thinking it would be a painful place, turned out to be a welcome respite. A green pasture. Still waters.
He maketh me lie down…
Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. We are over-tired children whose parents must force them: Go to bed!. We fight it. We cry. We scream. And in the end, a good night’s sleep was just what we needed, and even if we don’t know how to express it – even if we don’t recognize it – we are grateful.
He maketh me lie down…
Is it even a good translation? I look it up. The Hebrew used in the verse –yarbitzeini – is from the verb l’harbitz, which means “to hit” or “to strike”. But wait a minute. That can’t be right? He strikes me in green pastures? He strikes me down in green pastures? Surely that can’t be it! Even if I’m a cranky baby who needs to go to bed, my parental diety certainly wouldn’t slam me down into my crib!
A quick call to a respected friend and colleague reminds me that there is parallelism in the Psalms. The Lord is my shepherd. Shepherd. Shepherds use sticks to guide their flocks. They hit them (gently) to direct them where they need to go – to the green pastures; to the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep. In my darkest moments, I don’t know how to take care of myself. I can’t see through the pain of the moment to know where I need to be. I can’t find the green pastures. I can’t find the still waters. So God shepherds me there – to the pastures and waters, so that my soul can be restored.
In the Vally of the Shadow of Death – or in any of the spiritual valleys we find ourselves in during our lives (opposite the spiritual peaks) – in those places we have no control. We are at the mercy of fate and grief and anger and fear and loss and hope. And so we cry out for a shepherd to guide us through it – even to prod us along if necessary – until we’re feeling more in control; back on our feet. Until we can smell the fresh water for ourselves and find our own way out of the valley and into the pasture.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for He is with me. His rod and his staff they comfort me.
They comfort me.
Some days we are the shepherd. We reach for the words that will comfort another. We offer outstretched arms and advice and a friendly listening ear. We bring food. We give hugs. Some days we are the Shepard.
And some days we are the sheep.
And when we are, a little prayer that some shepherd will come along to guide us through makes absolute, perfect sense.
I think I’ll read Psalm 23 more often.