Saturday, September 12, 2009

Elul 24. Psalm 32 - A guide to teshuvah

Over the past three weeks, our Shabbat morning Torah study group has been studying psalms that reflect on themes of forgiveness. The first of the three we studied, psalm 32, has a particularly contemporary resonance to it, offering what today we might label a psycho-spiritual teaching on forgiveness that offers much food for thought. Here is the text of the psalm:

Psalm 32. Of David. Maschil.

  1. Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over.

  2. Happy is the man whom the Eternal does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

  3. When I kept silence, my limbs wasted away away through my groaning all the day long.

  4. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my sap was turned as in the droughts of summer. Selah

  5. Then I acknowledged my sin to You, I did not cover up my guilt; 
I said: 'I will make confession concerning my transgressions to the Eternal'-- 
and You, You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

  6. For this let every one that is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; 
so when the great waters overflow, they will not reach him.

  7. You are my shelter; You will preserve me from distress; with songs of deliverance You will surround me. Selah

  8. I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you shall go; I will give counsel, my eye being upon you.

  9. Be not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding; whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, that they come not near to you.

  10. Many are the torments of the wicked; but he that trusts in the Eternal, mercy encompasses him.

  11. Be glad in the Eternal, and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart.

Some of the observations and points of discussion in our study group were:

  • What is the meaning of ‘happy’ in the opening line? When we have a committed a wrong, does confession to God and true teshuvah lead to happiness? Some thought that ‘relieved’ might be more appropriate; but others recognized more of a joie de vivre – a spiritually-ground joy in living that can emerge from true teshuvah as we allow ourselves to recommit to positive living rather than forever being trapped in the depths of our own remorse.
  • In verse 3 we see what, at face value, seems to be a contradiction; when I kept silence my limbs wasted away from all my groaning… But when we are aware that we have done wrong but hold back from speaking with those we have wronged, or even offering up our feelings of deep remorse in prayer to God, our guilt can have a real psychological and physical impact on our body and soul it can literally 'eat us up.'
  • The psalm enjoins us to do teshuvah and experience God’s mercy and presence as we work through our guilt and inner torments. The horse, who is guided by our lead via the bit and bridle, is contrasted with the free will of humanity, containing both the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara – the inclination to good and to evil. What is the source of our internal steering mechanism? When we stray from our path, acts of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah (in the words of the High Holyday prayer, unetaneh tokef), can help us find our way back into God’s embrace. There is surely a deep, spiritual joy that can emanate from finding our way back home again.
  • Several times we see the word 'Selah' after a line.  Difficult to translate literally, it is perhaps best interpreted as 'Pause and consider'.  Psalm 32 offers a contemplative text that we can use as a gateway to our own teshuvah process as we move ever-closer to the New Year.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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