One Thing I Ask - A reflection on Psalm 27

During the months of Elul and Tishrei (until Shemini Atzeret) we add a special recitation of Psalm 27 to our daily liturgical prayers. 

The Sukkah reminds us of the Clouds of Glory, and it re-presents and expresses the protective  Divine Presence in our own time and space. Whether one is celebrating a festival or just living in "ordinary" time, how might the Jewish contemplative enter into the environment of that shelter?

Sitting in the sukkah on the fourth day day of Sukkot, reflecting on what it means to dwell in the “shelter” (sukkah) of the Most High, my thoughts were focussed on these  words from verse four in Psalm 27.

"One thing I ask of HaShem and that I shall seek: that I  might dwell in the House of HaShem all the days of my life to behold the pleasantness of HaShem  and to visit His  Sanctuary.” 

alternative translations for the last phrase include “contemplate in His Temple”, “worship in His Temple” and “visit His Chamber”.)

   Taken in its precise literary context within the Psalm, it seems that David is contrasting the insecurities and fears which assail him (and which he partly created himself) with his unshakeable trust in personal and intimate Divine protection.  It is the prayer of a man who knows that there really is only “one thing” that needs to be asked: the incomparable gift of a trusting and prayerful relationship with HaShem. Once this is granted (the petitioner hopes/believes) all else follows suit as an inevitable consequence of that relationship with The One whose generosity and mercy is unbounded.

   But there is something slightly odd about its grammar and its phrasing. My worst subject at school was Mathematics, and to this day I would declare myself to be virtually innumerate, but even I can see that it appears that David is asking for at least three things not one.   He says “One thing I ask” but them immediately names this one thing as being (i)to dwell in the House of HaShem;(ii) to behold the pleasantness of HaShem, and (iii) to visit in his sanctuary.

   Is this verse saying that these three are separate requests, or are they aspects of the same “thing”?  

   I am not sufficiently knowledgeable as a Hebrew philologist or as scriptural student to give you an academic answer to this question, but I am going to venture some  contemplative reflections on this text to (hopefully) enrich your prayerful study of this verse. It is my choice to read the text as asking for one thing, though I see the “thing” requested as being an intimate relationship of security and trust with HaShem that is most often filtered in three different ways.

One thing I ask

   When we pray with petitions  for ourselves and others we may sometimes ask for specific outcomes though we always accept that the outcomes are,almost without exception, matters for our King and Judge to define alone.  By asking for intimacy in prayer (as this verse must certainly be doing) we are making a clear statement of trust in our Father. We are declaring our intention to be utterly  honest and open in our private dealings with Him, hoping that this  might  result in a trust which overcomes all fears and anxieties. 

-and that I shall seek

   If –in our prayers—we are to ask HaShem to grant us that “intimate relationship of security”, then—in our deeds—we have to make every effort to deserve such a connection. David was definitely not a recluse though he was clearly a contemplative. He appreciated that the intimacy of a prayerful connection with HaShem could become so fundamental and crucial in a person’s life that the awareness of the Presence of God  is permanently (or near permanently) retained, no matter what the person is doing.  This “awareness” is something  granted to the tzadikim but it is also something that the ordinary beinoni can work towards.  David’s choice of words in this phrase is a strong statement that we must not sit idly by—but that the pursuit of contemplative intimacy with HaShem has to be sought out and, as it were, co-created.

-to dwell in the House of HaShem

   There are times when the sort of connection that we have with HaShem  while “in a crowd”  seems to intensify.  When this happens, we find ourselves mentally but not physically withdrawn from those around us.  There are also times when we seek this sort of mode-change in perspective by seeking out an isolated location first. There are times when this can be done for only a few moments or hours....and times when extended retreat is possible.  But these times are like visits to the Temple made by one normally living far from Jerusalem (though they had always been facing it in prayer).  They are the times when the intimate relationship becomes explicitly expressed and even if they occur while a person is physically praying in a davening community...they are always intensely private and personal.

   The Temple in Jerusalem was a complex of buildings and courtyards. There were parts of the building where the “human and social” was more or less significant than the “religious and liturgical”. Perhaps even more significantly there were areas devoted to prayer and worship...but also areas devoted to Torah study.  If we say we are “dwelling in the Beis HaShem”— we are stating that we believe that the work of the Community (in all its aspects) is “holy” (as in separated for a purpose).  To “dwell” in this house is to be concerned with HaShem’s affairs and engaged in His delegated business, for in that Environment ....nothing is secular. 

-to behold the pleasantness of HaShem

   Is this David’s second request?  At first he has said that his one plea is to “dwell” in the Beis HaShem.  Now he asks “to see” an aspect of HaShem which he calls noam. (Some translations give “beauty” as an alternative option for the text’s original “noam”.)  If one subscribes to the notion that all the three separate requests are aspects of the main one: then perhaps this “beauty” is something that can be seen in the workings of the Community. Perhaps it refers to the peaceful serenity which results from the act of trusting in the Divine security.  Lost for an answer to the significance of the word “noam” I went online to search for an answer.  I found one, from the pen of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks:

“With what blessing did Moses bless them? He said to them: “May it be G-d’s will that His presence rests in the work of your hands.” They responded: “May the pleasantness of the Lord our G-d be upon us. Establish for us the work of our hands, O establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90: 17). (Sifre to Bamidbar, 143)

 The midrash is based on the following stream of thought. One, and only one, psalm is attributed to Moses: Psalm 90, which bears the superscription, “A prayer of Moses, the man of G-d.” It ends with the verse cited above, “May the pleasantness (noam) of the Lord our G-d be upon us”. The reference in the verse to “the work of our hands” must surely refer to the Tabernacle – the only “work”, in the sense of constructive achievement, the Israelites performed in Moses’ day. Hence the phrase “a prayer of Moses” must be understood as the prayer/blessing he pronounced on the completion of the Tabernacle.

The question then arises as to the meaning of the words “the pleasantness of the Lord”. Another Psalm (27: 4) uses an almost identical phrase: “One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the pleasantness (noam) of the Lord and worship in His temple.” This suggests that both psalms are a reference to the sanctuary (in the wilderness, the tabernacle; in a later era, the temple), and that “the pleasantness of the Lord” is a poetic way of describing the cloud of glory that filled the Tabernacle (“Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle”, Ex. 40: 34) – in other words, the Divine presence. Thus when Moses said, “May the pleasantness of the Lord our G-d be upon us”, he meant: “May it be G-d’s will that His presence rests in the work of your hands.”

So if, as Rabbi Sacks expounds, “the pleasantness of the Lord” is a poetic way of describing the cloud of glory that filled the Tabernacle”— then this section of the verse is describing something akin to a revelation of the Divine Presence.

   Psalm 27 begins with the phrase "HaShem ori v'yishi" (HaShem is my Light and my Salvation). The Zohar also seems to agree that what David is asking for is in the nature of a Vision of the Divine Light:

"Come and see: the Just that merit to be bound in the bundle of Life are worthy of seeing the glory of the Supernal Holy King as it is written: "to behold the pleasantness of G-d [for that light is called pleasantness] and to visit His Chamber." (Psalms 27:4) Their dwelling is higher than all the holy angels and all their levels, since neither the upper nor the lower levels merit to gaze upon it. This is as it is said: "no eye has seen that Elokim besides You..." (Isaiah 64:3) ZoharBamidbar 182b

David is definitely not merely asking to be a courtier in the Royal household (as beinoni) but definitely requests Royal status himself (as Tzaddik).  The implication is that Jewish contemplatives may not have such  Davidic potential, but we certainly are encouraged to set our sights high  “for the sake of heaven”.  To ask to be shown this Divine Light might seem to be preposterous impudence on our behalf, but we do it every week-day in the Amidah-for this light is filtered down in concealed form to even the least of us as the light of “Understanding and Insight” which we beg for in the fourth brochah.  It comes to us in a customised form so that each receives according to his or her own capacity.

-and to visit His Sanctuary

   This, the third and final aspect of the verse’s “one” request seems to indicate an even deeper penetration into contemplative intimacy. If one has already asked to “dwell” in the Beis HaShem, it would seem odd if the request was then changed to merely “visit”.  But in this phrase the reference is to a part  of the Temple complex which is not accessed except on special occasions and for special acts of avodah: The Sanctuary (Heichal) of this verse refers to the innermost room in the temple complex where we would find the chamber containing the menorah, golden altar, and table as well as the chamber of the Holy of Holies itself. 

   The one who asks to  dwell permanently in the Presence of God, there to study the beauty of the Divine Presence, is here asking to gain admission (at least some of the time) to the Inner Sanctuary where the Divine and the Human can fuse.  They are like the visits a High Priest made to the Holy of Holies. 

   The box-like sukkah and the box-like Holy of Holies are both places that are only visited at the appropriate time and in the appropriate season.  According to the Kotsker Rebbe, the Divine Presence rests everywhere that we allow it to—but there are special times and special events which open the door to a meeting whose intimacy is that of a type of hisbonenus infused entirely from above.  This is the third element of David’s request: that he/we may be granted that rare gift  of communion.

So are they three requests or are they one?

We meet HaShem in community action, in regular Torah study, and in the observance of the mitzvos. All three are expressions of the Divine Presence in this world. Expressions  which, in some sense, we ourselves co-create with HaShem.

We meet HaShem when we say we want to “dwell”, “see”, or “visit” His world. All three are expressions of the Divine Presence, because once we make a move towards Him we find Him running to meet us.

We meet HaShem in communal liturgical prayer (avodah), in private  discursive prayer (hisbodedus), and in infused contemplation (hisbonenus).  All three are expressions of the Divine Presence.  We may think that we are “asking” for them or “seeking” them but, in fact, they are gifts freely given.

 The three requests of David (and of the Jewish contemplative) are thus all part of one request:

May we live to see the day when the Name is One and known as One—
And may our thoughts, words, and deeds bring that day from His World  into our world.

N.R.(Nachman) Davies
4th Oct 2012