2020-07-18
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."

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.

Notice the psalmist doesn't say, "I will fear no evil because nothing bad ever happens in the world." He says, "I will fear no evil because it doesn't scare me because God is with me."

Is the central theme of the psalm that we are never abandoned by God?
Yes. The central theme is that the experience of going through the valley of the shadow teaches the psalmist what God is really about, and he wants to share that with us. He changes from an almost paternalistic understanding of God, almost a parent-child relationship, to a genuine relationship with God.

I never appreciated the last line of the psalm until I had to write a chapter about it. "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." God is inviting him into a permanent relationship--it's much deeper and richly textured than just shepherd and sheep. In Judaism, the mitzvoth [commandments] are a way of retaining a relationship with God, so that everything you do--the way you eat, the way you use words, and the way you treat other people--is a way of spelling out your relationship with God. The sense that you are living every moment of your day in God's presence--that's what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Which line in the psalm is the hardest for people to understand?
Probably "God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies" because it sounds spiteful or vindictive. As if I'm going to my 30th high school reunion only for that moment when I pull up in my new Lexus and all the girls who wouldn't date me eat their hearts out. In my interpretation, "in the presence of" is better translated as "in contrast to." There were people to whom I turned to nourish me when I was getting through this hard time, and they weren't there for me. And I would have felt deserted and abandoned if not for God. God nourished me spiritually the way my human friends were not able to.

In your chapter about the line "He restores my soul," you write that you don't have to believe in God to perfect your soul, but you do have to believe in God to have your soul restored. Can you explain the difference?
A soul is what makes us human. A soul is the religious term for all the qualities that human beings have that animals don't. The danger is that through either fatigue or apathy, we will lose touch with our souls. We will stop exemplifying the qualities that make us human and not animals--we'll be content to just eat, sleep, and have sex. Every human being has the potential to be bad, and every human being has the potential to be a very good person. But if you lose your way, which is very easy, I think you need God to get you on the path again.

In this sense, God represents the apex toward which humanity is trying to grow. The qualities which we ascribe to God are largely the qualities that human beings would have if they were fully realized--the compassion, the sense of justice, the reaching out, the self-restraint. When we lose those things, and our animal selves take over, I think we need the contact with God, at least the vision of God, to get us back on the path again.

How do people reestablish contact with God? Is it through praying?
I think the most accessible way is Shabbat [the Jewish Sabbath], when you let the competitive side of yourself cease and you do only things that put you in touch with your human side, whether it's davening [praying], or studying, or having time with family. Reading religious literature is a way, meditation is a way. They restore the soul. I think anytime you focus on doing things that are uniquely human, that's how you restore your soul. There are people who have no patience for religious services but they give charity, and if they do it right, they restore their souls.

Does the 23rd Psalm mean something different to Jews and Christians?
Absolutely. I was talking to a young man in my congregation whose wife is not Jewish. He asked me what I was working on, and I told him I was writing a book about the 23rd Psalm. His wife asked, "Isn't that a Christian document? Isn't that about Jesus?" Christians claim ownership of the psalm as much as Jews do. They love it just as much and maybe even know it better.

Is the psalm part of Jewish liturgy?
It's not part of the prescribed liturgy. We have chosen to use it at funerals and memorial services. I don't know why it's not prescribed. I could speculate that it's just so beautiful that the rabbis didn't want to render it ordinary with daily use.

In several places in your book, you seem to turn a certain line on its head. Instead of "my cup runneth over," you say, "give me a bigger cup." Instead of "I shall not want," you say "I want more." Is this what the psalmist intended?

With "my cup runneth over," I think that's what he intended. With "I shall not want," I think it's a change in what he said. The psalmist didn't mean "I don't desire." He meant, "I shall lack for nothing." Or as this friend of mine translates it, "The Lord is my shepherd. What else do I need?" I said, no, I want to need things. I want to keep on yearning, not for money, and not for more fame. I want to have things to look forward to. I want to feel that somebody who loves me can give me just the right present, because it's something I don't already have.

What do you mean when you write that gratitude is the most religious emotion?
It's having the sense that you have gotten more from life than you ever had the right to demand. You could have ended up with a lot less. You could have been born in Iraq. You could have been born in medieval Europe or Nazi Germany. If you're healthy, if you have parents, a family, a roof over your head, food to eat, gratitude is the response.

So does this psalm inspire people to be more grateful?
Only if you listen to it. That's why I wrote the book--because there are so many wonderful ideas in there.

more from beliefnet and our partners