“King David Playing the Harp” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. King David is traditionally understood as the writer of the Book of Psalms.
“King David Playing the Harp” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. King David is traditionally understood as the writer of the Book of Psalms.

Bold prayers and broad vision determine the quality of our lives

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

The Psalms of David were written long ago, but their beauty has not aged. One of the most moving is Psalm 27, which we read twice a day in preparation for the High Holidays. In it, David names his foremost aspiration: “The one thing I ask of God — the thing I seek most — is to live in the House of God every day of my life, to behold God’s beauty.”

David’s wish is the prayerful yearning of a sensitive soul. Yet when we turn to the Midrash for commentary on Psalm 27, we find a shocking statement.

Rabbi Abba said that what David was asking for was malchut shaal, that is, “monarchy, for the kingdom of Israel.” What seems to be a yearning for the Divine is in fact desire for earthly power — a politician’s quest for a worldly empire! Isn’t Rabbi Abba being too cynical?

His take does contain a profound truth. David, a king who had been a warrior, was surrounded by enemies. His emerging kingdom was precarious, bounded by threats. On the coast, the Philistines loomed as a formidable superpower. His rival Saul, a king himself, saw David as a traitor fomenting rebellion. Even his own son, Absalom, was scheming to destroy him. David constantly was forced to flee for his life. What do we imagine would be the highest wish of such a man? “Please God, destroy my enemies” or “God let me have revenge!”

Yet these were not David’s prayers. Buffeted by strife, hunger and homelessness, David remained elevated and bold even in the face of prolonged, gnawing challenges. What Rabbi Abba meant was that David had a yearning for horizons far beyond the petty daily ambitions that plague us all: “The one thing I seek most is to live in the House of God, and to build the House of God for all of Israel.” Malchut shaal.

This is the question that confronts us during the High Holidays season: How shall we define our own ambitions in the year to come? How large do we dream? With small-minded prayers, or like masters of the spirit? Malchut shaal!

We often don’t realize that the boldness of our prayers and the breadth of our vision, actually determine the quality of our life.

Say you put an 8-inch-wide, 30-foot-long plank between two 50-story buildings. Hardly anyone could walk that. But if you put it on the ground, no one would think twice about walking it.

Why? Not because the physical difficulties are greater 50 stories up, but because a person inevitably envisions falling off. Envision defeat and you are defeated.

It is impossible to soar when we are scared of the heights we can reach.

When you imagine accomplishing great things, the vision itself transforms your reality, and ushers in a new one.

That is why our High Holiday prayers ask each of us to think big. They are about seeking knowledge and wisdom, not just a Tesla, a vacation or expensive clothes. They remind us to return to God when, as happens so often, we drift away, carried by the tides of daily pressures and cares. They teach us to seek spiritual strength, as well as physical health, and to seek the best not just for ourselves but also for our people and, ultimately, for all humanity. They drive us to stand on spiritual tiptoes, to become more than what we are today.

Consider this: Beethoven wrote music far beyond the capacity of the instruments of his day, and his music could not fully be played in his time. As one historian put it, Beethoven’s music literally forced the creation of new and improved instruments. The world had to catch up to its magic.

Judaism does this with prayer. It gives us the melody: high ideals and exalted visions of the value of life, faith in God, justice, peace, love, universal redemption that reach far beyond the reality of the ancient society of which Judaism emerged.

The prayer itself is a melody that calls out: Give me instruments, human beings striving for Godly ideals, for Torah, for mitzvot, so that I may be realized. The notes soar through us, and we rise with their cadence.

And when we hear heavenly music being ruined by the cacophony of selfishness, hatred and war, we can take heart, knowing that God promised that this is not the end of the story. The future belongs to the music, not to outdated instruments that lack the range to play it.

Therefore, we believe, and we pray bold prayers while working optimistically to change ourselves and the world.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.