Psalm 91 discusses a single theme: God’s protection of the righteous. Their trust in God is like a shield, deflecting all types of dangers.
The chapter, also known as shir shel pega'im (“the song of plagues”), describes the numerous perils in the world. Some are spiritual pitfalls, “snare-traps” to lure us, while others are physical afflictions. Some exist only in our imagination, “the terror of the night”; others are only too real, a “flight of arrows by day”. Some dangers are hidden and unexpected, a “pestilence prowling in the darkness.” And some are in plain sight, but we are helpless to avoid them — “a plague that ravages at midday.”
Those who place their trust in God, however, are shielded from all of these perils. What is the source of this Divine providence and protection? The psalmist writes:
“כִּי אַתָּה ה’ מַחְסִי; עֶלְיוֹן שַׂמְתָּ מְעוֹנֶךָ.”
“For You, God, are my refuge. You placed your dwelling on high.” (Psalm 81:9)
The logical flow in this verse, however, is unclear. If God’s dwelling is “on high” and far away, how does He protect us?
A Hasidic story relates that a man, troubled by a difficult question, sought out the great Maggid of Mezeritch. How can one follow, he asked, the Talmudic counsel (Berachot 9:5) to “bless God for the bad that befalls us just as we bless Him for the good”? Is it possible to feel gratitude for our troubles and misery?
The Maggid replied that he should go seek out his disciple, Reb Zusha of Hanipol, and pose the question to him.
The man followed the Maggid’s advice and traveled 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 living in an extreme impoverished state. The furnishings were simple and bare, and there was little food to eat. In addition, the family members were beset with various afflictions and illnesses.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Zusha appeared content 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 explain this to me.”
Reb Zusha replied, “This is indeed a very difficult question. But why did our holy master send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering....”
Righteous individuals who are close to God — tzaddikim who cleave to the Source of light — 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 of the verse quotes the motto of those who place their trust in God: “You, God, are my refuge.”
The psalmist then speaks, not of God, but of these holy people. Speaking directly to the tzaddikim, he identifies the source of their spiritual fortitude and trust: “You have placed your dwelling on high.”
By virtue of your recognition that God alone is your true refuge, you have “placed your dwelling on high.” All of your dwelling, all of your lives, all of your essence, is “on high.” You have raised yourselves above and beyond all types of suffering and misfortune; and they cannot harm you.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 76.)
Illustration image: A Portrait of a Rabbi (Rembrandt, c. 1640-45)