FEATURE . Psalm 23

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Many people know Rabbi Harold Kushner for his 1981 book WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE. Recently, Rabbi Kushner wrote a meditation on the 23rd Psalm called THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD. Rabbi Kushner affirms that the 23rd Psalm answers the question, how do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?

Rabbi HAROLD KUSHNER: No matter how grievous a funeral was, no matter how tragic a memorial service was, if I just started to recite the familiar words of the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures …” it tranquilized the congregation. It just made people feel calm.

Photo of cemetary Right after 9/11 — when everybody was asking me, “Where was God that Tuesday? How could God have let such a thing happen?” — the answer I found myself giving was, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through.”

Cantor Deborah Togut (B’nai Israel, Rockville, MD): [Chants Psalm twenty-three in Hebrew.]

Photo of open book KUSHNER: I was paraphrasing the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” The psalmist is not saying, “I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.” He’s saying, “This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.” The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question, “How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?”

I want to believe in a loving God. And when you see children dying, when you see innocent people suffering, and when you see young parents stricken with an illness, how can you believe in a God of love and compassion unless you are prepared to say, “Some things happen in the world that God does not want to happen.” God is good. Nature is not good. Nature is blind. Nature is amoral. Fire burns and bullets wound and falling rocks injure and disease germs infect everybody, whether you deserve it or not.

Photo of funeral I was inspired to write all of my books, starting with WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, by the death of my son, who was 14 years old and was born with an incurable illness. I asked myself, how did my wife and I get through that? You would think that would shatter the faith of the average person. Where did we find the strength and the ability to raise him, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And the only answer is, when we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith.

But people who have been hurt by life get stuck in “the valley of the shadow,” and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that’s the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and not to justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.

Photo of sunset Why do people let themselves get stuck? Sometimes, I think, they feel guilty that they’re still alive and somebody they love has died. Sometimes, I suspect, they’re afraid. They’re afraid if they ever permitted themselves to recover, then they would lose the person not only physically but emotionally as well. And as a rabbi, I would try to explain to them, “No, that’s not how it works. When you have loved somebody, they have entered so intimately into the fabric of your soul that neither death nor time can ever take them out. They are always with you.”

[Reading Psalm 23:] “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”

  • Erin Livingston

    Thank you for your beautiful words. We used your quotation in the program for a Memorial Service for my best friend’s husband, Scott Resnick, who died recently in an airplane crash, 39, married with 4 kids. “When you have loved somebody….They are always with you.” You have said this truth so beautifully and we are grateful for your words during this difficult time.