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Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm

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On Sale: August 26, 2003
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From the author of the best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Living a Life That Matters–a new book of practical spirituality, of inspiration and encouragement gleaned from what may be the best-known and best-loved chapter in the Bible: the Twenty-third Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” So begins the psalm that, for millennia, has been a source of comfort in grief and of courage in fear. Now Harold Kushner discovers what it has to teach us about living our day-to-day lives. Each chapter discusses one line of the psalm in the context of both the time when it was written and the present day, and illuminates the life lessons contained within it. For example, Kushner shows us that the phrase “My cup runneth over” is a declaration of our gratitude for what life has given us and a rejection of the envy we may feel for what others have. And he draws on the ideas and thoughts of various spiritual figures–from G. K. Chesterton to Martin Buber to Paul Tillich–to further expand our understanding of this great psalm and help us benefit from its everyday spiritual wisdom.


Chapter One
A Psalm of David

Can fifteen beautiful lines from a single page of the Bible change your life? I believe they can, if you are willing to open your heart to their magic. Listen closely to them, read them with an open mind and an open heart, and you will find the answers to questions you are asking, questions about yourself, the people around you, and the world in which you and they live.

I would guess that there is one, and only one, chapter of the Bible that most people in the English-speaking world know by heart. We may remember a lot of sto- ries about Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, and Moses. We may be able to recite the Ten Commandments, parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that have entered into our literature. But when it comes to an entire chapter, I suspect that the only one we remember completely is chapter twenty-three of the Book of Psalms, the Twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .”

Even if you cannot recite the entire psalm perfectly, you know it well enough to say it along with a congregation, the way many of us sing along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game. We are so familiar with the Twenty-third Psalm that when a new translation of the Bible comes along, using archaeological and linguistic evidence to help us understand more accurately what the original Hebrew and Greek meant to say, we are uncomfortable with the “improvements.” We welcome the rewording of the stories, stripped of the Elizabethan vocabulary of the four-hundred-year-old King James translation (done in the time of Shakespeare). We don’t miss the use of “begat” and “wouldst” and “thee” and “thou.” But when it comes to our favorite psalm, we crave familiarity more than accuracy.

Why do we love this psalm so much, more than any of the other 149 psalms in the Bible? Why do we reach for it at moments of personal distress, cherishing its recitation at funerals and memorial services? It is a beautiful literary creation, but the anthologies are full of beautiful writings, and they don’t capture our hearts as the Twenty-third Psalm does. In just a few lines, it conveys the distilled wisdom of generations, offering us a way of seeing the world that renders it less frightening, teaching us to deal with the loss of people we love and with conflict with people who don’t like us or who treat us badly. It shows us how to recognize the presence of God at times and in places where we might think God was absent or when we might be so distracted by our own concerns that we would overlook God’s presence. It has the power to teach us to think differently and, as a result, to act differently.

Science, Albert Einstein once said, can tell us a lot about the universe—how old it is, how vast it is, what laws of physics control it. But he went on to say that science is powerless to answer the most important question of all: Is the universe a friendly place, supportive of human hopes and aspirations?

The Twenty-third Psalm, with its image of the Lord as our shepherd, responds to that concern. It gives us an answer, not in theological language but in beauti- fully crafted words and skillfully chosen images, and we respond to its honesty and optimism as much as to the beauty of its language. It comforts us with its familiar words and images, but its message goes well beyond comfort. It does not simply offer us the prospect of a better, safer world beyond this one. It teaches us to look at the world we live in clearly and without illusions, but at the same time to see it as a world in which we can live courageously, doing good for ourselves and others. Our world may not be a perfect world, but it is God’s world, and that makes all the difference. Yes, the world may be dangerous, it admits, but God is there to take care of us, to help us, even as a shepherd cares for his sheep in a world of dangerous predators and threats of accident. The world may be a frightening place, but it becomes less frightening when we know that God is here with us. As one writer has put it, sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the frightened child.

The psalm does not deny the shattering reality of death and loss, nor does it minimize how painful death and loss can be to us. It never asks us to pretend, as some religious teachings do, that death does not change things, that moving from life to death is no different than moving from New York to Chicago. It acknowledges the emotional darkness we find ourselves in when a loved one is dying or has died, the “valley of the shadow of death.” But instead of cursing a God who permits our loved ones to die, it introduces us to a God who is with us in our pain, and who leads us through the dark valley back into the light. It summons us to live bravely, to go forward with our lives in the confidence that we are not alone.

The psalm does not offer us the pious hope that, if we are good people, life will be easy, as some religious texts do. The author of the psalm has enemies. He has known failure. He has lost people he loved. In the pro- cess, he has learned that life is not easy. Life is a challenge, and he has grown stronger as, with God’s help, he met the challenges of life. He is a better person, a wiser, stronger person than he would have been, had life not challenged him to grow.

The psalm can teach us another valuable lesson as well: Much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us. But we can always control how we respond to what happens to us. If we cannot choose to be lucky, to be talented, to be loved, we can choose to be grateful, to be content with who we are and what we have, and to act accordingly.

In a mere fifty-seven words of Hebrew and just about twice that number in English translation, the author of the Twenty-third Psalm gives us an entire theology, a more practical theology than we can find in many books. He teaches us to look at the world and see it as God would have us see it. If we are anxious, the psalm gives us courage and we overcome our fears. If we are grieving, it offers comfort and we find our way through the valley of the shadow. If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people, it teaches us how to deal with them. If the world threatens to wear us down, the psalm guides us to replenish our souls. If we are obsessed with what we lack, it teaches us gratitude for what we have. And most of all, if we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the priceless reassurance that “Thou art with me.”

Who wrote the Twenty-third Psalm, this compact spiritual masterpiece that we love so much? Alas, that is a question we will never be able to answer. People of the ancient world had a different understanding of what it meant to “write” a literary or liturgical work. They understood that, just as “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes an entire culture to write a psalm. How could one person take credit for a literary creation and deny credit to his parents who raised him, his teachers who educated him, his religious leaders who inspired him, and most of all God who was the ultimate source of his inspiration? I cannot imagine Homer getting up in ancient Greece and saying, Here is a poem I wrote about the Trojan war. He is much more likely to have said, This is the story of the fall of Troy, playing down his personal role in putting it into words.

Many people hold to the tradition that King David wrote all 150 of the psalms, and indeed the Twenty-third Psalm begins, as so many do, with the words “A Psalm of David.” Many years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the history of the Book of Psalms and found myself concurring with the virtually unanimous opinion of Bible scholars that King David could not have written all of the psalms. Some of them refer to historical events that happened hundreds of years after his death, such as the Babylonian Exile. Some employ Hebrew words and grammatical forms that were not in use until long after David’s time.

It may be that King David composed a few psalms (the prophet Amos, who lived only a few hundred years after the time of David, refers to him as a musician and composer). If he did, the Twenty-third Psalm may have been one of them, featuring imagery that would have come naturally to this shepherd-warrior-king. It may also be that “a psalm of David” means “a psalm in the style of David” or “a psalm composed in honor of King David” or in honor of a later king, a descendant of the House of David.

From the Hardcover edition.
Harold S. Kushner|Author Q&A

About Harold S. Kushner

Harold S. Kushner - The Lord Is My Shepherd

Photo © Ariel Kushner Haber

Harold S. Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he is the author of more than a dozen books on coping with life’s challenges, including, most recently, the best-selling Conquering Fear and Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Harold Kushner

Q:You say you have been thinking about this book for years. Why did you decide to write it now? This is your first book post 9/11. Did that tragedy affect your writing it?
A:I have wondered for a long time why the 23d Psalm has the power it has to comfort us. But when, in the wake of 9/11, so many people were asking me “How could God let this happen?” the answer I found myself giving was “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we inevitably have to confront the unfairness of life, we would be able to do it because God would be with us.” I realized that when I said that, I was citing the 23d Psalm, “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.”

Q:Why do you refer to that line as “the heart of the psalm?”

A:First, because we turn to this psalm essentially for comfort and reassurance in troubling times, and that line, which not coincidentally is the exact middle line of the psalm, is the line that more than any other provides the comfort and reassurance we crave. In my opinion, it offers us the Bible’s clearest and most succinct answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and it answers that question not by explaining evil but by assuring us that God is on our side and not on the side of the evil deed, the accident, the illness or the injury. It doesn’t say that there is no such thing as evil in the world. It doesn’t say that evil happens only to people who deserve it. It says that there is plenty of evil in the world, plenty of undeserved suffering, but that it shouldn’t scare you because God is on your side and not on the side of the evil.

Q:Who wrote the 23d Psalm?
A: I’m afraid we’ll never know that. It might have been King David, but we don’t really know . The concept of individual authorship was very different in ancient times. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire culture to write a great poem.

Q:You describe the psalm as “a drama in three acts.” How so?
A: In its opening verses, the mood is calm, serene, peaceful green pastures and still waters. Then abruptly all that sunshine turns into darkness. We’re not told why. It may have been serious illness, business failure, betrayal, but most likely it was the death of someone close to the author. He has to struggle to find his way through the darkness. That’s when references to God change from “He” to “Thou” as the author comes to understand that it was only with God’s help that he made it through the valley of the shadow of death. Then in the final verses, he describes the new, more mature relationship he has come to have with God, based not on God giving him everything he wants, but on God offering him an ongoing sense of closeness.

Q:You write “My version of the psalm’s second line would read ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall often want’.” What do you mean by that?
A:If wanting refers to wanting more money, more fame, a bigger house, then I hope God prevents me from wanting those things. But there is a sense in which I don’t want to outgrow longing. I want there to be things in my life I haven’t done yet and I look forward to achieving. I want to cherish a vision of a better world rather than settle for the world as it is.

Q:Is there one line that for you has the most impact both personally and theologically?
A:When I began writing this book, I probably would have cited the line about “the valley of the shadow of death.” But by the time I finished, I had gained a special feeling for the line “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew is even more emphatic: “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” I found the line saying to me that when it comes to my job, my marriage, my family, I have to work hard to get the results I want. I can’t rely on good intentions alone. But when it comes to “goodness and mercy,” feeling good about myself and feeling forgiven for my limitations, I can stop striving and just let those good things find me where I am.

Q:You write “There is a sense in which it is uncomfortable, even intimidating to live our days conscious of the fact that we are living them in God’s presence.” Why would God’s presence make some people feel uncomfortable?
A:It depends on how you feel about yourself. One of the defining characteristics of a human being is that we feel held accountable for what we do. In some religious traditions, we are even accountable for what we think, what we fantasize about. To be human is to realize that we are subject to God’s judgment. If you feel good about who you are, you’re like the child who calls to his parents to come and see what he can do. If you’re not that happy with who you are, you’re more like the adolescent who tells his parents “will you just get off my back and leave me alone!”

Q:You describe gratitude as “the fundamental religious emotion.” Why is it so hard for many people to cultivate the habit of gratitude?
A:Gratitude is more than remembering to mumble “thank you” when someone gives you something. It is a way of looking at the world so that we recognize the things in our lives as gifts we might just as easily not have been given. It asks us to see the “givens” in our lives – our looks, our talents, our family – as gifts, and even if we might have wished for a fancier or more expensive gift, it is rude not to express appreciation for the gifts we have. When the psalmist, a man who has known the “valley of the shadow,” writes “my cup runneth over,” he is saying that he has learned to be grateful for what he has rather than lamenting what he may have lost or missed out on.

Why can’t more people feel grateful for what they have? Some people feel so entitled to the best that they are disappointed by anything less. Others find it hard to say “thank you” because it makes them feel passive, dependent, to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end.



“The author pours into [the book] everything a long life has taught him about this psalm, and all that this psalm has taught him about life. . . . It is a book worthy of attention from people of all faiths.” --The Dallas Morning News

“This is a nurturing book that will bring comfort to those who are grieving and peace to those who are caught in the vise of constant fear.” —Spirituality & Health

“Reaffirms [Rabbi Kushner’s] pre-eminent position among the religious teachers of the 21st century . . .This book is filled with just the right story, anecdote or illustration at just the right place.” --Jewish Media Review

“One of Kushner’s strengths always has been his ability to empathize, to understand the pain of others on a personal level, and to share his gentle wisdom in an accessible manner. . . . Nearly as soothing as the psalm itself, Kushner’s words elucidate, reassure and encourage.” --The Plain Dealer
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book


“One of Kushner’s strengths has been his ability to empathize, to understand the pain of others on a personal level, and to share his gentle wisdom in an accessible manner.” —The Plain Dealer

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Harold S. Kushner’s classic inspirational bestseller The Lord Is My Shepherd. We hope that they provide you with new ways of looking at and talking about this book and the guidance, encouragement, and methods of coping with the challenges of life that Kushner offers.

About the Guide

Harold Kushner was compelled in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, to offer a book of practical spirituality based on the well-loved Twenty-third Psalm. Having read the prayer at countless funerals and memorial services throughout his life as a rabbi, he was struck by how the psalm’s words never failed to comfort those suffering from grief or anxiety. Not only does the poem comfort us with its poetry, honesty, and optimism, it teaches us to look realistically at the world we live in and to take courage in the presence of God. In each chapter of the book, Kushner illuminates a single line of the psalm, drawing out its life lessons and making connections with the teaching of spiritual leaders and intellectuals like Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, William James, and others. With this inspiring little book, Kushner provides insights that offer strength, courage, and the power to live a spiritually fulfilling life even in the darkest
of times.

About the Author

Harold S. Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, where he lives. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from Columbia University. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he later earned a doctoral degree. He is the author of several bestselling books on coping with life’s challenges, including When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which has been translated into fourteen languages. He has been honored by the Christophers as one of the fifty people who have made the world a better place. His most recent book is Living a Life That Matters.

Discussion Guides

1. Kushner notes that his understanding of God is “first and foremost an issue of morality, that there is only one God and that He demands righteous behavior.” But his congregants’ understanding of God was different from his: “their souls craved a God who would make them feel safe” [p. 16]. There is, in most people’s spiritual lives, a primitive need for a feeling of security. According to Kushner’s discussion, how does the psalm respond to this need?

2. Kushner writes that he began this book in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At that time, he says, many people asked how God could have let such a horrendous event happen. But Kushner argues that “God does not, God cannot promise us happy endings in a world where laws of nature and human cruelty take their daily toll. God’s promise is not that we will be safe, but that we will never be alone” [p. 26]. To what extent does this argument provide comfort?

3. In his discussion of the particular pain suffered by those who have lost a child, Kushner suggests that “parents honor their child’s memory best not by saying ‘I’ll never get over it’ but by living those ‘inherited’ years”—the years the child didn’t get to live—“as fully and as meaningfully as possible” [p. 97]. What is insightful about this approach?

4. The psalm’s words, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” imply that one will eventually emerge from this place of darkness. Yet Kushner points out that some people are unable to move beyond; they remain depressed, unable or unwilling to leave a state of bereavement [pp. 94–95]. Why do some people remain this way while others are able to go on with their lives?

5. Kushner suggests that in choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve chose the gift of moral conscience over that of eternal life. He says, “We cheat death, not by living forever, but by bearing, raising, and educating children to keep our souls, our values, and even our names alive. One generation, scarred and often embittered by experience, gives way to another, born in innocence and hope” [p. 23]. Kushner’s way of thinking involves making insightful connections between religious texts and real life. How does his way of writing—or his authorial voice—assure readers that he offers convincing and pragmatic guidance in life’s difficulties?

6. The line “I shall not want,” Kushner says, means “I shall lack for nothing” [p. 29]. But he also discusses the problem of wanting—desiring what we don’t have, or desiring things to be other than they are. Kushner says his version of the second line would read, “I shall often want. . . . But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have” [p. 36]. Discuss his approach to yearning and to one’s sense of gratitude.

7. What does Kushner mean in his interpretation of the phrase “He restores my soul”? Why is it so important to remember that one’s soul often does need restoration, care, and rest? What happens to people whose souls are depleted? Why do the words of Isaiah 40:31 mean so much to Kushner and his wife and daughter [p. 68]?

8. Consider the story Kushner tells of how theologian Martin Buber came to his principle of “I and Thou” [pp. 80–81]. What is the ethical basis of the “I-Thou” relationship, and how does it relate, for Kushner, to the relationship between God and human beings?

9. Kushner writes, “God has no ego” [p. 82]. How does he reconcile this idea with the line, “He guides me in straight paths for His Name’s sake” [pp. 74–77, 84]?

10. What difference does translation make in the words of a Biblical text like this psalm? Consider the varying interpretations of the Hebrew words tzalamut, tzal mavet, and the widely known phrase from the King James Bible “the shadow of death” [pp. 86–87]. How does Kushner understand the metaphorical implications of the original and translated words, and how does he expand the image they project into a philosophical discussion of death and its presence in the world?

11. According to Kushner, how should the knowledge of inevitable death affect how we live our lives? How difficult is it for people to believe, as Kushner does, that God shares human pain, and is with us at the moment of death [pp. 98–99]?

12. Consider Kushner’s discussion of the line, “I will fear no evil” [pp. 102–3], and the role faith plays in our ability to survive life’s problems. Why is the idea of community, as well as having faith in one’s personal partnership with God, so important to Kushner’s reading of the psalm?

13. How have terrorist actions of recent years, like the Oklahoma City bombing or the events of September 11, 2001, changed people’s understanding of evil in the world? How convincing is Kushner’s suggestion that it is better to respond to horrific events with compassionate action than with questions about why God allowed such events to occur [pp. 110–11]?

14. Discuss Kushner’s reading of the line, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” How does he avoid the unattractive ways in which this line might be interpreted [pp. 126–34]?

15. Kushner writes, “Gratitude, I would suggest, is the fundamental religious emotion. It is where religion begins in the human heart” [p. 145]. Why, in his view, is the emotion of gratitude so powerful?

16. The Lord Is My Shepherd offers itself to us as an aid to everyday life. Which insights or words of advice are most surprising, most persuasive, most profound, or most useful to keep in mind on a daily basis?

17. Kushner opens the book with a question: “Can fifteen beautiful lines from a single page of the Bible change your life?” [p. 5] If you were familiar with the Twenty-third Psalm before reading this book, how have your thoughts about the psalm—or about your life—been altered by what you have read? Reread the opening paragraph after finishing the book. Does it seem that Kushner is right in his claims for the power of the psalm?

Suggested Readings

Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie; Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase; Martin Buber, I and Thou; Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart; Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor; Dalai Lama, The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom; Martin Gray and Max Gallo, For Those I Loved; Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies; Stephen Levine, A Year to Live; C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed; Jack Miles, God: A Biography; Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul; Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Live and How We Die; Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; Saint Augustine, Confessions; Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., Learned Optimism; Dorothee Soelle, Suffering; William Styron, Darkness Visible; Studs Terkel, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?; Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God; Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish.

  • The Lord Is My Shepherd by Harold S. Kushner
  • August 24, 2004
  • Self Help; Religion - Inspirational
  • Anchor
  • $14.00
  • 9781400033355

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