Friday, November 30, 2012

Psalm 16 - for Ten Minutes of Torah - Union for Reform Judaism - November 29, 2012

Yizkor: Psalm 16
By Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol
     I was sitting by the bedside of my father-in-law, Bert Marks, one day in early March 2004, as he was living out his last days.  My wife Rhonda, our son Adam, and I had traveled to southern California to offer our support. In the quiet of those moments, I reached for a Bible on a bookshelf nearby, resumed my seat by the bed, and recited Psalm 16, which I had been studying around that time with the hope of setting some of its contents to music. I offered those words of the Psalmist as prayer for comfort for my father-in-law and the family.
    Psalm 16 occupies a central place in the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and the three festivals. Reform prayerbooks have usually included verses 8-11 of the Psalm, but the latest CCAR Rabbi's manual adds some of the beginning verses as well in the funeral liturgy. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov identified this Psalm and nine others as having special power to bring a person facing illness or challenge a Tikkun Hak'lali (Complete Remedy), a true healing of body and of spirit.1 In his book Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity , Rabbi Rami Shapiro noted that Rabbi Yaakov Koppel, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, was known as the "Shivitinik" because of his regular recitation of Psalm 16:8, "I have set the Eternal before me always/Shiviti adonai l'negdi tamid."2 Rabbi Daniel Polish explains that many Jewish homes have a "Shiviti plaque" hanging on the wall "as a constant reminder that we are living under God's protecting care.3
    Psalm 16 expresses profound faith and trust in God. It can enable us to recognize that God is always available for us as a dependable and supportive companion. In this "michtam /golden-song of David," the Psalmist views God as a refuge and a source of goodness and counsel in life.4 God guides us in the right direction towards our destiny.
     Acknowledging God's presence, "setting God before us always," can provide us with encouragement and comfort, even in our grief or at a time of challenge. We can feel that God is with us when we express gratitude for our loved ones who once walked with us and when we admit our amazement at the miracle of life itself. Such realizations can lead us to exultation and joy (verse 9). The pinnacle of Psalm 16, in verse 11, is used in our liturgy to conclude the silent Yizkor prayers: "In Your presence is perfect joy; delights are ever at Your right hand."
The solemnity of a Yizkor service calls for a melody that evokes the Psalmist's pleading for God's ongoing protection and/or a feeling of calm and confidence at the realization that the Eternal One is constantly before us. Transcontinental Music's Shirei T'shuvah/Songs of Repentance collection includes a setting by Nisse Blumenthal, which seems to characterize this Psalm as a humble and solemn request to God.  Nisse Blumenthal Shiviti  For many years, in the Yizkor services which I have led, Michael Isaacson's melody has offered a feeling of reassurance and the sense that our tears of grief also carry within them a touch of joy and gratitude (sung here by Cantor Faith Steinsnyder). Michael Isaacson Shiviti
One of the activities that my father-in-law greatly enjoyed was singing in public, whenever he had the opportunity (he was a "crooner" in the style of Frank Sinatra). As I sat by his bedside and read Psalm 16, I focused especially on the verse 9: "So my heart rejoices, my whole being exults, and my body rests secure." When I created my melody for Psalm 16, I shaped my lyrics in the spirit of Stephen Mitchell's interpretive translation: "You are my food, my drink, my sunlight, the air I breathe. You are the ground I have built on and the beauty that rejoices may heart."Larry Karol Shiviti
May Psalm 16 serve to open our eyes to God's supportive presence that can ultimately lead each of us to joy and to peace.
  1. Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW, ed. Healing of Soul, Healing of Body, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994, page 17.
  2. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity, Bell Tower, 1997, page 78.
  3. Rabbi Daniel Polish. Keeping Faith with Psalms, Jewish Lights, 2004, page 197.
  4. Martin Samuel Cohen. Our Haven and Strength: The Book of Psalms. Aviv Press, 2004, page 41.
  5. Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms, Harper Perennial, 1993, page 8.
Lawrence P. Karol serves as Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, NM.

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