This year during Elul, my chevruta (study partner) Rabbi Leah Citrin I have been reading Psalm 27 each day as part of our preparation for the High Holy Days. I am not usually one for routines – I don’t like the idea of being tied to a daily task, or I forget once, decide I have failed, and call the whole thing off. So I have been surprised to discover how meaningful I have found this month-long routine.
Each day, something new in the text jumps out at me – a word or a phrase, or a connection to the High Holy Days that I had never noticed before. The other day, as I was pondering the themes of fear and courage, I realized that Psalm 27 begins with courageous words negating fear, and ends with fearful words seeking courage.
The psalm begins confidently: “Adonai is my light and the one who saves me, who shall I fear? Adonai strengthens my life, of whom should I be scared?” Here, God serves as bodyguard, standing just close enough to intimidate the most dangerous of foes, watching intently, just in case. The psalmist feels safe, brave, protected by God.
How easy it is to be brave when we feel supported, when we know we have backup.
But soon the psalmist’s confidence wavers – is God actually present? What if God doesn’t want to protect her, doesn’t feel she deserves protection? How can we know that the people who say they have our backs actually do?
“Do not hide your face from me,” the psalmist pleads in verse 9, “You have been my help, do not abandon me!”
It is much harder to face our fears when we feel unsure, when we feel alone, when we look around and cannot see the support we seek.
By the second to last verse of the text, the psalmist is almost at a loss for words: “If I didn’t believe I will get to see the goodness of God in this lifetime…” the text trails off here, the sentence unfinished, the unspoken question lingering. Is it even worth it to take the risk? What if I don’t make it?
And yet, in her most fearful moment, the psalmist chooses courage. The text concludes: “Have hope in Adonai – be of good courage and strengthen your heart. Have hope in Adonai.”
To truly live, we have to be a little afraid – because to truly be alive is to be keenly aware that life is temporary, and that any day could be our last. The High Holy Days make sure to remind us of that truth over and over again: “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – who shall live and who shall die…”
And yet, too much fear can also keep us from living. Fear can start us off on a spiral until we wonder – is it even worth it to take the risk? Fear can paralyze, cause us to close off and shut down, fear can lead us to avoid experiences and pass up on opportunities.
Reading Psalm 27 every day reminds me to hold both of these truths. We get to be afraid, because the world can be a scary place. We get to acknowledge that fear, we get to explore that fear, we get to feel that fear. But in the end, to live is to have hope. To live is to work to strengthen our hearts, to bolster ourselves despite our fears, and step out into the world anyway.