Looking At The High Holidays Through The Lens Of L’Dovid
A Review of Lord, Get Me High! by Rabbi Elchanan Shoff
Reviewed by Shmuel Stone (Jewish Press, August 28, 2015), p. 65
Elul is when the first blasts of the shofar remind us that after the exciting summer months, we begin the transition into a more spiritually sensitive period. In addition to the shofar, there is also the custom to recite L’Dovid (Psalm 27), from the start of Elul untilShemini Atzeret. It is a short Psalm, only 14 verses long, and all too often we skim it quickly at the end of Shachrit and Maariv before leaving synagogue.
Midrashically, there is great meaning in the Psalm’s first verse, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” The Midrash says that “ori” (my light) refers to Rosh Hashanah, and “yishi” (my salvation) refers to Yom Kippur (see Leviticus Rabbah 21:4). The Psalm also teaches, “He will hide me in His shelter” (verse 5); the Hebrew word for “shelter” is sukko, but written as sukkah – a reference to the holiday of Sukkot. It has also been noted that the name of God appears 13 times in the Psalm, corresponding to the 13 attributes of mercy, which are recited as part of the Selichot.
What then is the overall theme of this Psalm? Do we incorporate it to our prayers because of some coincidence about the number of times a particular word appears, or is there a deeper reason? Rabbi Elchanan Shoff has presented the themes of L’Dovid one by one in his new book, Lord, Get Me High: Making the most of the High Holiday season by exploring themes from Le-Dovid (Psalm 27).
Rabbi Shoff writes, “Rather than offer some sort of a one line answer that one could easily recycle as dvar Torah material at the table, this slim volume is an attempt to take a serious look at fourteen different verses of this powerful chapter of Tehillim.”
During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we add the words: zachrenu le-chaim Melech chafetz ba-chaim ve-chasvenu be-sefer ha-chaim le-maancha Elokim chaim, “Remember us for life, King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O living God.” But what does this insertion really mean? All living things desire life – it’s an automatic response to try to avoid death, shared by man and beast alike. But when we add these words, do we just desire physical life, no different than cattle or a household pet? Of course not, answers Rabbi Shoff. Many people approach life with the attitude of self-centeredness: what can my parents, my spouse, my friends, and even God do for me? This is natural but it is also unfulfilling. When we ask God to answer our prayers for prosperity, it’s only so we can return that wealth in service to Him. Rabbi Shoff writes, “We do not simply ask for life. We ask for a life that will contribute to the world in only the most positive ways.”
When our prayers are answered, the proper response is to show gratitude to God. But even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before. This is a common but powerful (and theologically challenging) teaching to internalize. He bases this conclusion on a grammatical idiosyncrasy in verse 3, “Though an army would besiege me.” He points out that in Hebrew, the word for “besiege” should be “yachaneh.” But the verse says “tachaneh,” which means, “You will besiege” – the “You” referring to God. King David says that if we recognize that God, rather than our enemies, “is sending us our hardship, then our hearts need not fear.” This is simultaneously an uneasy but also comforting message for a time when we struggle to assess the year that is expiring and the new year that approaches.
Rabbi Shoff’s energy and exuberance leap out from every page of this book. It is short and accessible, but the reader should not confuse brevity with shallowness. It is a profound and engaging book for a season that most dramatically calls out to us. As Maimonides writes about the shofar, the other Elul tradition, “Arise, arise, you who sleep, from your slumber” (Laws of Repentance 3:7). Rabbi Shoff’s book is sure to bring us enthusiastically, fervently, and passionately into the season of Elul and Rosh Hashanah.
Lord, Get Me High! is available here.