What the Psalmist Meant

In a new book, best-selling author Harold Kushner offers a line-by-line interpretation of the 23rd Psalm.

Harold Kushner's best-selling "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" established his reputation as a rabbi with appeal for both Jews and non-Jews. His most recent book, "The Lord Is My Shepherd" (Knopf, 2003), is an in-depth exploration of the Bible's most familiar psalm, the 23rd (Read it here). Kushner spoke to Beliefnet about the psalm's unique power to provide comfort.

Your book comes out at a time when the 23rd Psalm might be on a lot of people's minds, because of the second anniversary of September 11.

That's not a coincidence. The book was prompted by 9/11 two years ago, when in the wake of the attack, everybody from my next-door neighbor to Tom Brokaw was asking me, How could God let this happen? The answer I found myself giving was that God's promise was never that life would be fair. God's promise was that when we have to confront the unfairness of life, we will be able to handle it because we won't do it alone--He'll be with us.

After I'd said that a couple of times, I realized that's the 23rd Psalm. "I will fear no evil for thou art with me."

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Out of all the psalms, do you think people turned especially to the 23rd after 9/11?

I don't know what happened after 9/11, but I know that for the thirty years I was a congregational rabbi, I always used it at funerals, at memorial services, at unveilings. It has this magical power to comfort people. I don't know how many people turned to it personally privately, but I suspect it was used at a lot of funerals and memorial services in the wake of 9/11, Christian and Jewish alike.

Often tragedies like September 11th or the death of a family member make people lose faith in God. How can this psalm help them?

Sometimes people lose faith. But sometimes people lose faith in a certain childish conception of God and acquire a more mature conception of God. Paul Tillich once said, "When I was 17 I believed in God. Now that I'm 70 I still believe in God, but not the same God." A naïve conception of God is a God who is always there to protect us. We replace it with a more realistic understanding of a God who is there to help us through the difficult times in our lives.

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