This chapter reflects on a single theme: God’s protection of the righteous. Their trust in God is like a shield, deflecting all types of dangers.
The psalmist describes the many perils in the world. Some are spiritual pitfalls (‘the snare-trap'), while others are physical ('the devastating pestilence'). Some exist only in our imagination (‘the terror of the night'), while others are quite real (‘the flight of arrows by day'). Some dangers are hidden and unexpected (‘pestilence prowling in the darkness'), while others are known but we are helpless to avoid (‘plague that ravages at noon').
But those who place their trust in God are shielded from all of them. What is the source of this special Divine providence? The psalm explains:
“כִּי אַתָּה ה’ מַחְסִי; עֶלְיוֹן שַׂמְתָּ מְעוֹנֶךָ.” (תהילים צא:ט)
“For You, God, are my refuge. You placed your dwelling on high.” (Psalm 81:9)
Yet this verse needs to be clarified. Who dwells on high? What does this phrase mean?
A popular Hasidic story relates how a man once went to the great Maggid of Mezeritch with a question that deeply troubled him. He could not fathom how one could follow the Talmudic counsel that ‘One should bless God for the bad just as one blesses Him for the good’ (Berachot 9:5). Is it possible to be thankful for one’s troubles and misery?
The Maggid replied that he should go seek out his disciple, Reb Zusha of Hanipol, and ask him this question.
The man followed the Maggid’s advice and travelled to Rabbi Zusha. The tzaddik received him warmly and invited him into his home. As soon as the guest entered the house, it became obvious that the family was extremely poor. The furnishings were simple and bare, there was little food to eat, and the family members were beset with various afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless Rabbi Zusha was happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished.
The man posed his question. ‘I asked the Maggid how is it possible to bless God for the bad just as one blesses Him for the good, and the Maggid told me that only you can help me in this matter.’
Reb Zusha replied, ‘This is indeed a very difficult question. But why did our holy master sent you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering!’
Those individuals who are close to God, tzaddikim who cleave to the Source of light — they place their lives, their very being, in the elevated realm of holy life. There, nothing can hurt them. They are beyond life’s pitfalls and troubles. They are beyond even the possibility of lack.
This is how the verse should be read. The beginning quotes those who place their trust in God: “You, God, are my refuge.”
The psalmist then responds, “You have placed your dwelling on high.” By virtue of the fact that you recognize that God alone is your true refuge, you have ‘placed your dwelling on high.’ All of your dwelling, all of your life, all of your essence, is ‘on high.’ You have raised yourself above and beyond all types of suffering and misfortune; they cannot harm you.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 86.)