Friday, September 2, 2011

Psalm 27: Satisfaction and Singularity

It seems that most years, soon after the arrival of the month of Elul, I write about Psalm 27, also known as the Penitential Psalm or the Psalm for the season of Teshuvah.  It is customary to recite this Psalm every morning and evening from the arrival of Elul through the end of the holiday season.  And each year, my focus is on one verse:

אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי

If they array a camp before me, my heart will have no fear.
Psalm 27:3

There is a perennial sense of relief in reciting this verse after camp is over.  There was a camp arrayed before me and now they have all gone home!  Saying this verse twice daily after the camp season concretizes both the sense of awe prior to the summer and the relief that follows the successful completion of that summer.  

In praying this Psalm the last few mornings and evenings, however, my attention has also been  drawn to another sentence.  In verse 4, the author makes a clear statement about his ultimate goal, his singular desire:

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

One thing I ask of the Lord,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
to frequent God’s Temple.

Is the Psalmist expressing a fact or an aspiration?  Would he be singularly and completely satisfied?  Is there truly any one thing that can bring complete satisfaction and if so, is it Divine in nature?  The expressed desire of the Psalmist raises questions about satisfaction in this world, about desires, about needs, and about what we really seek.

In a consumerist world, where the cycle for new phones with more features in smaller and smaller packages becomes shorter and shorter in response to demands from the public, is it possible to ever achieve satisfaction?  Do we actually aspire to satisfaction or do we just aspire to more of whatever it is we seek?  The author of the Psalm looks sharply at the world in which he lives and comes to understand that a daily relationship with God, one that is so intimate that it feels as if he or she lives in God’s house, is all he truly needs.  Like Ecclesiastes, the Psalmist discovers that everything else is vanity and transient.  This is the setting we try to construct in the summer, in the camp arrayed before me as director. At camp, we seek to live in constant relationship with God’s glorious natural world and aspire to see people and nature as the reflection of God’s presence.

In this season of the year, can we squelch out all of the worldly, consumer noise that bombards us daily, engage in true, deep self-reflection and achieve the same singularity of desire and purpose as the Psalmist?  We are slammed with over 5,000 brand images and messages daily.  Can we look beyond what they tell us we want, be it a new phone or a new gadget, a new body or a new image, and see what is truly important?  For some, this is possible.  Others find it challenging if not nearly impossible to imagine such focus and singularity.  Perhaps that is why the mishnah in Pirke Avot sees the one who conquers his desires as the truly heroic person and the one who is happy with her portion and purpose in the world as the one who is truly rich.  My wish for the coming year is that we can all achieve the singularity of purpose and satisfaction expressed by the Psalmist.  Let us continue to strive for in strengthening our relationship with God as we work to make this world the full-time dwelling place of The Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.