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What is L’dovid Hashem Ori About, Anyway?

August 23, 2013

Both the Artscroll and the Koren siddurim cite the Midrash which expounds Psalm 27’s first and fifth verses as reffering to the holiday season (although the fact that the fifith verse is an allusion to Sukkoth is not found in the earliest versions of the Midrash). They, like many siddurim, then somehow claim that it is thus proper that this whole psalm be recited all of Elul. See here and the links therein to the Seforim blog for the full history of this new custom.

The problem is that just because a psalm has one of its verses expounded to refer to the season, it does not follow that we should be reciting that psalm twice daily throughout that season! Indeed, there are only three sections of the Bible which are mandated to be recited twice daily – the sections that compose k’riath sh’ma! Note that the sages considered mandating the recital of other sections, like the Ten Commandments, but ultimately did not establish additional recitations. (Our custom of reciting sections dealing with the sacrifices is not widely observed, and even then it is obvious that those sections are meant to be studied as a means of compensating for failing to offer the sacrifices.) Yet, there are those who take the recitation of this psalm as a religous duty. I am bothered by two issues. 1. the fact that dubious customs seem to take on a life of their own, and few protest. This is a form of ziyuf hatorah, falsifying the Torah, or what I would term “halachic noise.”  Discussing these issues as though they are really related to halacha distracts us from actually fulfilling the real mitzvoth. There are so many customs and practices out there nowadays, that a Jew with his heart in the right place can fill his days with them and not have time to actually perform the commandments! 2. The whole discussion of the fallacy of “saying” tehillim is also old news. “Saying” tehillim, despite the truth, seems to be here to stay. I have seen that despite everyone’s constant recital of this psalm, few are actually aware of its plain meaning! Here goes. King David trusted in the L-rd to protect him when he would go off to battle, but he truly wanted to live peacefully and merit to build the Temple. He was denied that opportunity, but he kept holding out hope that he would get to worship in the Temple. This would lead to his spiritual growth. This is most obvious in verses 4-6, but is alluded to cleverly in verse 14. The expression hazak we’ematz is first used by Moses a number of times (Deuteronomy 31) to encourage Joshua in his holy mission of leading the people in conquering the land. It is then repeated in similar contexts throughout Joshua 1. Thus, it is used in the context of preparing for war. David, who sought to turn his powers from battle to construction of the Temple, now shifts this expression for his desired purpose in our verse, and later in I Chronicles 22:13 and 28:20 he uses the same expression to charge Solomon with the Temple’s construction!

If only the Jewish people had King David’s mindset. Three books of the Bible and many midrashei hazal go to great lengths to explain how King David merited to have the Temple “built in his name” because, unlike his contemporaries and those who preceded him, he actually did something to fulfill the commandment of building the Temple. Instead, today’s Jews are too busy with reciting this psalm by rote twice daily and assorted other minhagim to consider that perhaps there are actual commandments they should be seeking to fulfill.

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