The Hebrew month of Elul began Sunday evening. This is the month for Jews to listen to the wake-up call of the shofar (ram’s horn), add Psalm 27 to our prayers, and identify where we went wrong during the past year. We begin apologizing to the people we wronged, and repenting of our deeds that wronged God.
By the end of Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) next month,1 we hope to have made amends with both human beings and the divine spirit within us.
Psalm 27:1-9, promise and plea
The custom of reading Psalm 27 every day during the month of Elul began in the mid-18th century.2 How does that psalm help us in our work of self-review and repentance?
One answer is that we are begging God for forgiveness, and Psalm 27 includes both a promise and a plea about God’s response in times of trouble. It begins with the promise, a statement of faith that God will continue to help the poet:
God is my light and my salvation; whom would I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life; whom should I dread? (Psalm 27:1)
Later in the psalm, the speaker is less certain of God’s benign attention, and begs:
Listen to my voice, God, when I call!
And by gracious to me, and answer me! (Psalm 27:7)
Do not conceal your face from me, do not turn away from your servant in anger!
My helper you have been.
Don’t you cast me off, and don’t ta-azveini, God of my salvation! (Psalm 27:9)
ta-azveini (תַּעַזְבֵנִי) = you leave me, forsake me, abandon me, give up on me, set me free. (A form of the verb azav, עָזַב.)
Psalm 27:10, abandonment
Another answer is that Psalm 27 contains this couplet guaranteeing that God will accept anyone who sincerely repents:3
Although my father and my mother azavuni,
God ya-asefeini. (Psalm 27:10)
azavuni (עֲזָבוּנִי) = they have left me, forsaken me, deserted me, neglected me, set me free. (Another form of the verb azav.)
ya-asefeini (יַאַסְפֵנִי) = will gather me in, will take me in. (A form of the verb asaf, אָסַף.)
In other words, even if my parents kick me out, God will take me in.
The standard interpretation of this couplet is that all parents are attached to their children at first, but let them go at some point. God, on the other hand, is always ready to bring us in and take care of us, no matter how old we are.
For 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno, parents set their children free when they reach adulthood, and after that only God helps them. For some later commentators, parents love their children indefinitely, unless the children commit unforgivable acts; but even then, God is willing to forgive them.4 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch rephrases Psalm 27:10 this way: “For even if I were so depraved that my own father and mother would abandon me and leave me to my own devices, God would still take me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.”5
This interpretation of Psalm 27:10 follows the usual psychology of an abused or neglected child. Parents have absolute power over their children, so it would be devastating to believe that these god-like creatures were unjust, inflicting punishment for no reason. Therefore most abused or neglected children assume that they are the “bad” ones, that they deserve what they get, and that if only they can manage to do the right things, their parents will reciprocate with protection and affection.
Of course this strategy does not work, since the parents are defective because of their own psychological problems. So then it helps to believe that “Although my father and my mother have forsaken me, God will take me in.” Adult children who still feel as though anything that goes wrong must be their own fault can take comfort in this view of God as the supreme parent.
I can imagine people who grew up with loving, attentive, and empathetic parents either skipping over Psalm 27:10, or interpreting it as “Even when my father and my mother have [died and] left me, God will gather me in [like a good parent].” Perhaps they picture confessing a mistake to God, and God enfolding them in a forgiving embrace.
What about people whose parents were neither terrible nor excellent, but merely inadequate? What about those of us with parents who provided us with meals and clothing, some signs of affection, and punishments only for actual disobedience; but who made us feel like failures? Can we find encouragement in Psalm 27:10?
I know some people brought up by inadequate parents who think of God as an improved parent, an invisible presence who substitutes for what they missed. I take a different approach. I gradually learned to recognize my parents’ flaws and stop blaming myself, and I worked hard to be a better parent to my own child. Now I think of God not as a substitute parent, but as the inner inspiration that sets me free to choose my path.
As for Psalm 27:10, I take it as a goal for ethical behavior. If one of my fellow human beings is forsaken and deserted by others, I would like to welcome that person and offer my attention and kindness. I cannot be a substitute for a forgiving God; after all, I am not omnipotent, so I need to avoid outcasts who would put me in danger. But a harmless outcast might only need someone to talk to.
I regret the times this past year when I have ignored people. I hope to become someone who listens.
- Yom Kippur is the 10th of Tishrei, the month after Elul in the Hebrew calendar.
- The recitation of Psalm 27 continues until Hoshanah Rabbah, the 21st of Tishrei. This custom was first recorded by Rabbi Ya’aokov Emden in Siddur Bet Yaakov, 1745.
- Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Yom Kippur, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1987, p. xiv.
- Including Scherman (ibid); and Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 93.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated from German by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, 2014, p. 237.