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Psalm 81

“Blast on the new-moon shofar, with the appointed time for a day of our celebration” (Psalm 81:4). In the days of the Temple, this Psalm accompanied the Rosh Hashanah offerings (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 30b). The Psalm opens urging the singing of happy songs. Why were happy songs appropriate for a Day of Judgment? An answer: Just as soldiers march into battle singing songs of victory, so as we prepare to appear before God, we do so with the confidence that God is loving and all will go well.

And yet, the second half of the Psalm has a decidedly different tone. Now, God speaks: recounting the Exodus and paraphrasing the opening two commands of the Ten Commandments. In the second half the word “listen” appears five times, and we hear God’s emotion, “If only My people would listen to Me, Israel in My ways would walk” (verse 12). The final line at first impression marks a happy ending, “But [God] would feed [Israel] from the fat of wheat, ‘And with honey from the rock, I will sate you’” (verse 17). This closing image is a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32:13-14. But, there is a catch. The next verse in the Torah, which the audience probably knew by heart,” reads, and “they became fat and rebelled.” Whoops. We are left with God’s promise and the uncertainty of human fidelity.

On Rosh Hashana we are called by the shofar to remember: our year, those with whom we shared the holiday in the past, and who we could become with greater focus and purpose. Each Thursday, we also read Psalm 81 as the Psalm of the day.

Join me for what the sages discerned was a Psalm of encounter with God.
Psalm 81 is dedicated to Cliff and Sara Cornell.

Joyous Festivals 5716 stamp – 60 mil – Ram’s horn with the inscription on tab: “Blow the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day” Psalm 81:4.