Ps. 91: God is My Refuge
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 19 books on Jewish ethics.
The words of Psalm 91 are the poetry for this moment of pandemic. The Talmud1 calls Psalm 91 both shir shel pega’im and shir shel nega’im: a song of dever—plague2—and nega—disease.3 This is a healing Psalm and it gives advice on and comfort for painful predicaments throughout our lives. The process of being sick is felt by every person, everywhere, but this psalm also delves into the psychological management of our emotions during trying times: don’t fear4 and live life with the hope for salvation.5 It is for this reason that this Psalm is traditionally recited on Saturday nights6 in the darkness of the post-Sabbath light.
Though on the surface this psalm is about our emotions of hope and fear, it seems to do more than comfort us on a physical level. Indeed, the power of Psalm 91 in its totality is that it transcends the limiting psychological realm of the human mind and reaches toward the spiritual well-being of each person. In this psalm we are invited to see God as our refuge,7 to experience the angels,8 to see the travails on the material world as acting at the behest of the spiritual world,9 to hear God’s call,10 and to feel that God is with us during our most heightened times of distress and suffering.11
What does it mean for us in the contemporary moment to know that God is with us and resides within our souls and psyches? How do we know that God is our refuge? Based on a commitment to theological pluralism, I will not answer the question but share three possible theological frameworks:
- Interventionist Theology – God is with us in that God intervenes in the world. God has the power and, perhaps, the will to stop plagues and suffering.
- Partnership Theology – God acts through us. When we talk about “angels” in the psalm, we are talking about humans acting like God (imitatio Dei). We partner with God in this world to address suffering. God acts too but is hidden so we don’t know how.
- Solitude Theology – We are alone. God will not intervene or even partner with humanity. Rather, it is up to us alone to address our challenges. But we can feel spiritual solidarity with God who is distant but emotionally with us.
We’re quite familiar with the first two traditional theologies. In the third, we acknowledge that God stepped away from us granting human beings free will and increased responsibility but also that God remains relevant. Indeed, when we close our eyes in prayer, when we cry in pain, when we shake in fear, we can feel that God is with us. It’s possible that God is far beyond us, perhaps God is close to us, and perhaps God is within us. We will never know for sure… in this world, anyway. Yet, we feel God’s closeness as we walk a path of courage to alleviate suffering, to advocate for justice, and to support vulnerable populations in the pursuit of love for all of humanity.
For the secular humanist, faith in God is lost—maybe forever—but faith in humanity is gained. For the traditional adherent to religion, faith in humanity is lost but faith in God is gained. Still, there is a middle ground to place our trust in both God and humanity. It is not a blind trust that all will be okay. But rather a trust that if we humbly and courageously walk on a path of integrity, with reflection and in partnership, with God and with humans, that we can find comfort in that walking.
Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav (d. 1810) taught about the power of finding faith within the broad sphere of philosophical skepticism:
‘It is better to be the fool who believes in everything’ (Proverbs 15:15). In other words, it is better to believe and have faith—even if you end up believing in stupidity and lies—if you at least also believe in the truth. This is far superior to the other extreme of being a cynical skeptic who successfully rejects stupidity and lies but at the same time also rejects the truth because of his reflexive skepticism and ridicule of all beliefs. This is what the Sages say12, ‘It is better that I be called a fool all my life and not be wicked for a moment before G-d.’ 13
Now, of course, it would also be foolish to believe foolish ideas blindly. But the challenge that Rebbe Nahman gives us is that our skepticism—which we need on an intellectual level—not blind us from living to our deepest soul potential—which we need on a spiritual level. We don’t know that God is with us, but if we wish, we can live and feel God with strong faith. This knowledge gives us the strength and resolve to live each day with purpose and the task to seek meaning in every action, no matter how mundane.
On a personal level, as one engaged in spiritual activism to work for change in society, I often feel battered from various directions. Many people want to know how it feels to be constantly defeated from larger oppositional forces that have much more power and resource. Others simply want to know how I can persevere knowing that the odds of making tangible changes are often low and slow to actualize. When I think about it, I often find both comfort from my God relationship and the challenges that it provides. When I reflect in prayer each day on who I am and who I ultimately serve, I receive much-needed clarity and centeredness.
I truly feel that once we experience God as our refuge—whether we mean this literally or even in a vague metaphysical sense--we must then act Godly to become a refuge for others. It is through this work that we defeat plagues and create a more equitable world for all. Psalm 91 is the balm we need to settle our nerves and reorient our vision to seek peace within us and for all of society.
1 Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 15B.
2 Psalm 91:6.
3 ibid. 91:10.
4 ibid 91:5.
5 ibid 91:16.
6 In the prayer service starting with Ve’he no’am.
7 Psalm 91:9.
8 ibid 91:11.
9 ibid 91:8.
10 ibid 91:15.
11 Ibid, Imo Anochi b’tzarra.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.