"THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD" (PSALM 23) *

Barbara Ellison Rosenblit

Text 

The Generational Reading

The 23rd Psalm By King James

A Voice Close to the Edge

 TEXT

The Lord [1] is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.

On lush [2] grass He leads me;

By calm waters [3] He herds [4] me.

He revives my spirit [5]

He counsels [6] me in the spheres of justice [7] for the sake of His Name.

Though I have walked in the valley of the death-shadow [8]

Even there I will not fear evil because You stand [9] with me.

Your tribal rod [10] and Your supporting staff [11] console me.

You prepare before me a table [12] in view of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup is filled.

Goodness and grace will pursue [13] me all the days of my life,

And I will rest in God's House for the length of my days.

 

THE GENERATIONAL READING

Three voices speak. The first, a child, says verses 1-2; the second, a man in middle-age, verse 3. He is interrupted by the third speaker, an old man, who speaks and weeps intermittently verses 4 and 5. Together, but with different intention, the three say the last verse in unison.

The dramatic setting is a family reunion. Three generations have gathered together. At last, the early atmosphere of greeting and renewing connections and festivity has given way to a calmer, more somber tone.

Someone attempts to make a video with intergenerational answers to the question, "Who is God to you?" He queries the three generations.

The child answers first. His answer reveals his child-fashioned, concrete representation of God. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall lack nothing." Contained in this theology is total confidence in God's power to guide and to take charge. Here contained is optimism and trust in authority, and willingness to be led with the utter confidence that the places God will take him are safe and beautiful, verdant and nourishing. "To lush grass He leads me/ By calm waters He herds me."

The second speaker is in mid-life. He has faced a rupture of faith; he has witnessed injustice. He looks to God to renew him, to bring clarity to his confusion. Revival, counsel and justice are the keys to his ability to face crisis and to retain faith. "The Lord revives my spirit; He counsels me in the spheres of justice for the sake of His Name."

Unlike his young son, the father seeks an active, interactive God. God is not a noun, a metaphor, a shepherd, an outline to color in a book. God must do more than be. For this now-aging man, God must reveal himself through action. God must do. God must be defined by verbs; hence, revive and counsel. God must act, and so be act-ive, and so be inter-act-ive.

The third answer to the filmmaker's query comes from the grandfather, who is near the end of his life, facing death. He has come to God again and again for more than eighty years now, seeking comfort and solace, offering praise and thanksgiving. He calls to God directly, intimately. "You," he calls to God, not "He", as his son does to distance himself from intimacy. The old man has called out to God, and God has sometimes answered and sometimes been silent.

His struggling son is seeking paths to justice, but the old man hardly lets him finish his still youthful pursuit before he interrupts... "And though I have walked in the valley of the death-shadow" (his grandson quivers at the image) "Even there I will not fear evil because You stand with me." (For a moment the son thinks his father is depending on him to quell his father's fears, but as he looks at his father's closed eyes, he realizes it is God he is addressing.)

His father, bent from arthritis, bones brittle from age, reaches to touch his cane, which rests on the arm of the chair. Unable to walk unsupported now, he sighs aloud, "Your tribal rod and supporting staff console me." He is a man of great pain and great faith.

His eyes well with tears. He visualizes himself stretched out in the hospital bed; the peculiar words of J. Alfred Prufrock whisper in his ear: "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table." [14] He fears a final inevitable stay in the hospital among strangers. "You prepare before me a table in the view of my enemies", he weeps. But, too, he recognizes his good fortune. He looks at both his son and grandson. "You anoint my head with oil, my cup is filled." His life has been long and full of both joy and sorrow, and now debilitating disease, but even this does not shake his faith. He knows enough to be grateful for not-so-simple pleasures.

Now the three recite together the closing lines of this psalm, but for each the words express an independent meaning.

"Goodness and grace will pursue me all the days of my life/ And I will rest in God's House for the length of my days."

With this verse, the grandchild takes great comfort in knowing that what pursues him is good, and that he can rest with God whenever he wants.

The son takes the verse to mean that ultimate satisfaction will be found for him in study, in God's House. There, he may find the peace for which he yearns.

And the grandfather takes the words to mean that the rest in God's House will be his final rest, for all the days to come.

THE 23RD PSALM BY KING JAMES
(OCTOBER 4, 1956)

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The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

Mrs. Gibson said that this is a som.

I don't know what som means exactly, but it has a lot of lines that our class will learn by heart. Mrs. Gibson says that now that we're in second grade, we're ready to tackle this and other Bible pieces. I like Mrs. Gibson. She's old with gray hair and thick legs and high-buttoned white collars. Her shoes are black and lace up and she is strict but has a soft touch when she rests her hand on my back and leans over to see my work. I like to work because it passes the time. We have spelling tests every week, and I always make hundreds. Except one, where I thought she said "cole" like cole slaw, but really she said coal, like bituminous coal, and she counted off.

This whole som is hard to make sense of, but the first part is not so hard. It says--I don't want a Lord who is a shepherd, but it says it backwards, because that's what soms do, mix words and phrases around to make them like a puzzle to unscramble. If I wrote it in plain English it would say-- I do not want the Lord to be a shepherd.

That's an odd idea, isn't it? The Lord dressed up as a shepherd. What does that mean we have to be--sheep? Yuck. Lying around in the fields all day, eating grass, not much to do. Get our wool shaved off for sweaters, maybe become lamb chops. This is a good and funny beginning for this som-- Who could imagine a worse fate than spending your life as a sheep, except maybe becoming a donkey like Pinocchio. I don't want the Lord to be a shepherd because I sure don't fancy being a sheep.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters.

There, just as I predicted--making me lie down when the hills beyond beckon me up and away, leading me next to still, stagnant waters like the smelly pond near our apartment with the scum that floats on top of it. This som is about not wanting to be led around like a bunch of sheep.

Before every spelling test, we all recite together, "Good better, best--I will never rest until I make my good better and my better best." Sheep aren't good, better, best. The best are the ones who just do what they're told. That's nothing to aim for--to be the best at lying around and drinking from infected ponds?

He restoreth my soul.

I wonder why King James wrote this som with all those eths. Maybe that's how you can tell the difference between a som and a poem. Eths do make it sound quite grand, really, but they're hard to say. Maketh, leadeth, restoreth. Mrs. Gibson says that soms use that kind of language because that's the language of the Bible.

A soul. A soul is something that God gives you that may live in your feet, and when you die, my father told me your soul goes up to heaven. Is your soul divided between your two feet? If one is amputated, do you have only half a soul left? Could we damage a soul with ill-fitting shoes? Mamma sits on the couch and cuts the hard callused skin off her feet sometimes. She always tells us that she hopes we don't ruin our feet like she did. Her second toe curls over her big toe and there is this big triangular bone that juts out of the side of her big toe. Daddy told me you can't see your soul and that everyone has a soul and that God put it there. How does it exit your body once you're dead? If we have souls until we die, then what does restoring your soul mean? Is it like resoling your shoe? What does a restored soul look like? Is it as good as a new one? Do all souls look the same? Most feet look the same, unless you have six toes or webbed toes. They're not like faces that tell who we are at just a glance.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His namesake.

Who is God's namesake? Who is named for God?

My namesake is my grandfather--both my grandfathers, really--Barney and Louis. I miss not having any grandfathers, just their names to know them by. I beg for stories to know them better. To know myself better. To know if their names have magic.

Names are curious, aren't they? They tell a lot about us. Daddy calls me so many names--Sis--Sis Delaimes--Barbaronisis--Dolly. Every name he calls me is a pet name. When he calls me by one of those names, I feel happy. Daddy loves me. He never gets mad at me and always knows how to fix everything and he is patient and he can find anything that is lost.

Does God have pet names that the angels call him?

On the first day of school, Mrs. Gibson asked us to introduce ourselves by our family names and our Christian names. I am the only Jewish person in the class and was sure I didn't have a Christian name, and when I told her that, she smiled and said that Barbara was my Christian name. Later, Joe LeVert asked me how I knew I was Jewish and I told him that I just was and he said to bring him proof. I couldn't. What proof is there? I felt bad and actually sort of afraid of him.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me/ Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me

This valley, what must it be? Why cry "yea" before starting off on the trek? Shadows of death. Grey and dark and not even the moon to light your way. Why does this som say that death is scary? I think that when you die you learn the pleasures of heaven. You find out the greatest mystery of the world--what God looks like.

I have thought a lot about God. God is surely not a shepherd. God is mysterious, and shepherds are just bored or maybe even not so smart, standing around with hardly anything to do. And so lonely. (Why, Little Bo Peep even lost her sheep, but they found their way, anyway). I've thought about it quite some time, and I've a notion that God is air. Air is all around us--invisible. God is all around us--invisible. If we shoot the air with a gun, it won't die. And God can never die; you can't kill God, and you can't kill air. Air gives us life and keeps us alive; we could not live without it. We breathe it in and it fills our body with life. We breathe out and it keeps the plants alive. When we are born our mouths and lungs open for the first time and God enters us. Maybe that's when the soul comes in and fixes itself in our feet. Air circulates through us to keep the whole world going. We breathe God in with every breath; is that is how we restore our souls?

A rod and a staff. I thought that a rod is what is used for hitting. "Behave or I'll take the rod to you." That was what Anne of Green Gables' teacher said to the boys misbehaving in class. Does this shepherd have a prod in both hands? How can these sticks used to keep you in line, used to wop you if you misbehave, be comfortable, bring comfort? That's why I don't want God to dress as a shepherd-- I don't want Him to use a rod on us.

Thou preparest a table before me

A white tablecloth. Flowers. China. A feast. God could summon up such delicacies.

Imagine what luscious fare the angels could prepare.

Pungent smells pouring from the heavenly kitchen.

We have a small kitchen in a tiny apartment, and Bubby is there most of the time. She sits and shells pecans. First she pulls a long hair pin from her thin grey bun and she uses it to dislodge the nutmeats from their shells. She spends hours sitting there shelling, putting the nutmeats into glass jars. She snaps beans in huge pots; with a flick of the wrist, she takes off the ends and pulls the long string down the side of the bean. She loves to cook and she cooks all day. Bubbie is big and fat and old, and she wears shoes like Mrs. Gibson's, but her dresses are silky-looking flowered fabrics and have no shape. She doesn't much like kids around. Bubbie always has newspaper under her when she works, and she squints as she looks over her glasses. She says "ern-yuns" for onions and says "wrench" for rinse. She tells me and my brother to stay out of her way and go play and don't break anything.

In the presence of mine enemies Thou anointest my head with oil my cup runneth over.

What could be worse? God pouring oil on your hair, down your head, sticky, mucous-like glue covering your face while people who hate you watch; everything leaking out of the cup set at your place, spilling out, running out of your cup, soiling the clean white tablecloth. Nightmare! Why would God do such a thing? What did we do to deserve this? Is He an angry shepherd? Did the flock roam too far? I don't want a shepherd to torture me if I make a mistake. I want God to be air.

Surely Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

At least the som has a happy ending. But I don't know what went wrong that made God angry and what happened to make it right again. I don't know where God's house is, and how will everyone be able to dwell there. Doing anything forever sounds like an awfully long time, and I can't imagine not getting bored, being in the same house for ever. Do you grow older for ever? Can you take a vacation?

Mrs. Gibson says that we will memorize other soms, but that for Christmas we are going to surprise our families with something very special. I'll surprise my family with it for Hanukkah, I suppose. It's from a new Bible, she told us. Some of the kids in the class are having trouble learning the som, but I love learning, and memorizing is easy for me. So whatever it is, I'm ready.

A VOICE CLOSE TO THE EDGE

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing
To lush grass He leads me
By calm waters He herds me.

Tubes run through me, one nostril blocked as the tube runs down my nose into my stomach to suck the poisons out. My thumb rests on the button so that I can ease the pain--they say "control the pain"-- with only so much as a twitch of the finger. What do I lack?

Is my husband, Yot, asleep? His eyes are closed, his brow is furrowed, his feet propped up. Yesterday was our 47th wedding anniversary.

The doctor told me there are cancer cells on the liver, spread from the colon, and nothing that can be done.

 

I have been to funerals, perhaps hundreds. All of Yot's family is in the cemetery now. The blades of grass force their way up between the cracks in the stones, between the graves themselves. Lush grass, fields of grass.

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child; I did not know any more than he...
...And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.
The grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers.... [15]

I am all dark red blood oozing from the bandages and yellow urine filling the plastic receptacle that hangs from the bedpost. The silent, bulging bag that hangs from the stand above my bed leaks colorless fluid back into me, to be turned red and yellow before it seeps out. Drop by drop. Still waters.

This is what I am now. Liquids in, fluids out, cancer trying to eat me alive from the inside out. No one will ever know who I really am. Who I really was. They can see but a fragment, and that fragment only a reflection of themselves in me, what they think they see, what they want to see. My dreams and memories will die with me. I leave behind but a shadow.

He revives my spirit.
He counsels me in the spheres of justice for the sake of His Name.

"Can you live ten years with cancer?" That's what I heard Yot ask the doctor. Can you believe him? I'm 79 years old, and he's asking about 10 years. Do I have 10 months? 10 weeks? He doesn't believe I'm on the way out.

My daughter cries when she thinks I'm asleep. Don't cry. My life has been good. Happy. I would change nothing. After all, every life has some sorrow, doesn't it?

From the window, I see leafless trees. Tomorrow is new year's eve. I have forgotten more than I remember. Yet I remember much of joy and love.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before;
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more. [16]

Yot sneezed. He needs to get rest. "God bless you."

And yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

Odd that this psalm is a standard at funerals. Was it selected for the valley of shadow of death line?

Boy I hate to think that that rabbi will be doing my funeral. He doesn't know me. Can 80 years be compressed into a hundred words? a thousand? three sentences in the newspaper? half a phrase chiseled on the face of the stone?

Shall I fear death? I remember in Salt Lake City on the tour of the Mormon Church how comforted I was by religious beliefs. I agree with them about what happens when you die that's what I think happens, what they showed in that movie--all your dead relatives gathering together to welcome you into heaven. I'll see Mamma, and Aunt Fanny, and my poor brother Philip. I'll see so many whom I miss, who come again and again in my dreams.

I have such strange dreams, full of dead people. Are they preparing me?

Sometimes sleep is the only relief I have from the thoughts that race around inside my head and keep me from rest. I welcome sleep; I cherish sleep, if only to free me from my fears. Sometimes I awake refreshed, ready to read the funny papers.

You prepare before me a table in view of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup is filled.

In my dream, I am lying on a hospital table, a white sheet covering the hard metal , separating me from it. Is it an altar? Am I an offering? Will I be sacrificed up to the insatiable god of illness and suffering? Does everyone have a good view? Those who care and those who don't? Will some rejoice as I die?

They prepare my body with sweet smelling oils before the embalming begins, before I am carried to the pyramid. The priest lifts the overflowing cup above his head. The crowd cheers.

I awake at last.

Goodness and grace will pursue me all the days of my life, And I will rest in God's House for the length of my days.

Please God, don't let me linger, hooked up and helpless. That's all I ask.

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[*] This was written in response to a class on interpretation of Psalms and will appear shortly in print.

[1]uses the ineffable name-- YHVH --translated variously as "Lord" (Soncino, JPS), and "HaShem" (Feuer).

[2] translated usually as "green pastures" (JPS, Soncino) or "lush meadows" (Feuer), ne'ot deshe', is also "a grassy place of beauty," as nevei means both "beautiful and comely" as well as "a dwelling place and pasture" (Alcalay, p. 1598) 12.

[3] mei-menuhot is "tranquil waters" (Feuer), "water in places of repose" (JPS), and "still waters" (Soncino). I chose "calm" to emphasize the root noah --comfortable and restful.

[4] most often, "leads" (JPS and Feuer), or "leadeth" (Soncino). I chose "herds" to emphasize the shepherd metaphor, because yenahaleni has at its core menahel --manage. A shepherd manages his flock by herding them about, not leading.

[5] "renews my life" (JPS), "restoreth my soul" (Soncino), "restores my soul" (Feuer). I prefer to emphasize the double entendre of the root shav of the word yeshovev (return--make it alive again, and its aural relationship to shavav --enliven, energize). I prefer "spirit" as a synonym to "soul" because it emphasizes the living spirit.

[6] "guideth" (Soncino), "leads" (Feuer), "guides" (JPS). A manheh is a counselor.

[7] ma´aglei tsedek usually "paths of justice" (Feuer), "right paths" (JPS), or "straight paths" (Soncino). I chose "spheres of justice" to reinforce the root ´agol --circle-- and to capitalize on the medieval association of the word "sphere" with heavenly spheres. Note, for fun, the pun on the root calf-- ´egel -- as part of the shepherd motif.

[8] tsalmut is a wonderful word that seems to be a compression of two words, tsel and mavet which also share a link through the mem -- tsel-m-avet -- so we have three ideas at play simultaneously: tselem --image; tsel --shadow; and mavet --death. Translated variously as "valley overshadowed by death" (Feuer), "valley of the shadow of death" (Soncino) and "valley of the deepest darkness" (JPS). The root is probably not this merged word as suggested above, but an Arabic word for "deepest darkness" -- zalmut. I prefer "death shadow" for its multiple imaged, futuristic sense.

[9] ´imadi "with me" (JPS, Feuer, Soncino). I prefer to emphasize the "standing" ( omdi ) sense of this root.

[10] shevet -- rod and tribe are the same word. By linking the two, I can reinforce the rod symbolic of covenant rather than the rod of violence ("And I will punish their transgressions with the rod," 89:33). Feuer, in his troubling commentary, suggests that the combination of the two motifs--rod as punishment and staff as consolation--complement each other. He concludes that affliction is itself a support, for after it comes comfort.

[11] the addition of the adjective "supporting" to emphasize the meaning of mish´enet --support.

[12] shulhan ´aruch has multiple allusions--to the dinner of the Seder, called the shulchan aruch , and, by extension, Pesach's celebration of redemption from bondage; also Psalm 78:19, which refers to God's grace in the desert, "...Can God prepare a table ( shulchan aruch ) in the wilderness?" In this instance, though, I suggest the potentially unenviable situation of being shown God's grace in view of one's foes, thus provoking jealousy and angry retribution.

[13] yirdefuni "pursue," instead of the more common "follow" (JPS, Soncino) to emphasize the connection with " Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof ."

[14] T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.

[15] Walt Whitman, "Grass."

[16] Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sonnet (p. 42, Collected Sonnets).

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