Rabbi reflects on how Psalm 23 can offer hope, comfort

Nobody gets through life unscathed. Nobody. With this insight, religion has given the world its most enduring literature of consolation.

The psalms of our own heritage are a part of this canon; Jewish writers have bequeathed words that lend succor in times of disappointment and pain. In every era of Jewish life it is the commentary on our ancient texts that keep fresh and responsive ancient themes in contemporary times. In more recent times, the nascent Jewish Healing movement has helped bring the psalms to the forefront of our consciousness.

All commentary is essentially an act of translation: How does this ancient text help me today? In the late 1980s the psalms re-emerged as an answer to this question, when commentators such as Rabbis Rachel Cowan and Nancy Flam emphasized Psalms as stalwart comfort in the face of life’s inevitable moments of grief and death.

It is in this context that we can place the most recent work by the world-renowned author Rabbi Harold Kushner, “The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm.”

For Kushner, the impetus to write his reflections of this particular psalm comes as one of his responses to Sept. 11. Most of us are familiar with Psalm 23 from its recitation at funeral and memorial services. It is among religious texts that have become part of our secular lexicon, though sometimes without understanding their origins.

Kushner devotes a chapter to each line of the psalm, and each chapter reads like a sermon. He culls from Jewish tradition, popular culture and other disciplines, such as psychology, to fashion his understanding of the guidance each line can give us. His use of these elements makes the book attractive to a general audience.

For example, in the chapter that reflects upon the first line “The Lord is my Shepherd,” Kushner writes that though we all grow independent as we age, we “never outgrow the yearning for someone who will make us feel safe and cared for … George Gershwin captured that sense of longing when he composed the romantic ballad ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.'”

With this kind of homey use of cultural references, Kushner gives a sense of assuredness that God is always with us, never fails to offer comfort and will remain devoted to us no matter our own failings.

This kind of surety of faith gives solace. Yet it can also subtly imply that any struggle with faith is only a lack of patience or some deeper defect.

For example he writes, “We will hurt, but we will heal. We will grieve, but we will grow whole again.” While certainly we all hope that we will heal and that when we grieve we will be whole again, we also know that some deaths leave us broken, lost and forever pained in ways that only become bearable over time.

It seems that somewhere deep inside us, we know that none of us is the same after the death of a loved one. A widow may fall in love again, an adult child whose mother has died may seek out other parent-like mentors, a father whose son has died may volunteer to coach a baseball team to still be a father-figure. But we all know it is nothing like the original relationship that is forever altered.

And so I wish only that Kushner’s reflections recognized a bit more the ways in which Psalm 23 can be succor even to those whose faith is crushed in the midst of life’s harshness.

This is a good book to buy and read. Because the author also educates the reader about Jewish life, it is a way in which he successfully contributes to a form of interfaith dialogue. This makes it an accessible piece of religious literature to give our loved ones regardless of one’s faith-tradition.

It can become something like a daily reader. You can pick it up, read a chapter or even a couple of pages and it will offer a translation of our tradition that will stimulate you to think of what the text means to you. And isn’t that what we want from our tradition? That no matter what we experience, no matter our state of faith, there is something in a text that keeps us in the grander dialogue with our place in the larger scheme of life.

“The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm” by Harold S. Kushner (192 pages, Knopf, $19.95).

Rabbi Eric Weiss is executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.