Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 21 Sept 2015
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Ach, tov vachesed yird’funi kol y’mei chayai; v’shavti b’veit Adonai l’orech yamim.
Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever [lit. for length of days].
(Note: I have also written a setting of the whole of Psalm 23 that you can find here.)
One of the most spiritually charged seasons in the Jewish liturgical year is High Holy Days, including the penitential month of Elul, the new year celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Over the 24 hour fast of Yom Kippur there are six services, and perhaps the most intense of these is Yizkor, the service of remembrance for those who have died. The prayers and readings sear the heart, and provide expression for our grief, and an opportunity to explore our thoughts and feelings about death.
In the Reform UK prayerbook, the service ends with a poignant sequence in which each person speaks the names of their departed loved ones into the silence of the listening congregation. This is followed by a solo prayer leader singing the El male rachamim prayer for the souls of the departed to be held in the sheltering embrace of God; then everyone says the Kaddish, a prayer recited for centuries by mourners to affirm life and the goodness of God. It is a powerful moment. The Reform UK prayerbook completes the service with Psalm 23, words that compare God to a shepherd who offers safety to his flock through both strong boundaries, and deep compassion.
The shepherd in ancient times was often wealthy, with huge flocks of animals, and military might. So the analogy of God as shepherd in Psalm 23 is most likely not invoking a lone figure on a windswept hillside, but a powerful tribal leader, who offers protection in return for allegiance. This is the God to whom we sing in Psalm 23.
In 2015, I decided to explore creating a musical setting of Psalm 23 for the Yizkor service at Yom Kippur for my Jewish Renewal community the London Ruach Chavurah. Rather than set the whole text, I wanted to use just one verse to capture the essence of the psalm, and the moment in the service. It wanted it to be a piece of music that could comfort us, and release us from some of the intensity of what we had just been through. A gentle, meditative chant seemed appropriate.
The theme and analogy of the psalm reminded me of JS Bach’s piece, ‘Sheep may safely graze’. The text alludes to Bach’s patron as a protective benefactor: “Sheep can safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them. Where rulers are ruling well, we may feel peace and rest …” It then occurred to me that I could draw on the soothing assicaitons of Bach’s piece to create my own setting of verse 6 of Psalm 23. There would be a link through to the theme of the protective shepherd / ruler, without having to use the pastoral verses from the psalm. The basic melodic shape and harmonic direction of the Bach main motif is retained, but has been transformed from the 4/4 time signature into the more lilting 6/8. When the ‘Bach’ half of my tune is overlapped in a round with my own tune for the other half verse, Bach’s music is further disguised. So the words of Ps 23:6 serve as a contrafactum for Franck’s, while the music itself is subtly altered, to create a new piece.
When this piece is sung by a group of people, especially in the context for which I originally intended, my hope is that those praying (whether as singers or listeners) will be able to feel the truth of Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi’s translation: “[Because You have invited me,] I will affirm that only goodness and graciousness will manifest for the rest of my life, in which I will be always at home with You.”
Possible ways to use this prayer-song
- The prayer can be sung as a single congregational line or solo with instrumental accompaniment.
- The first half verse can be sung solo, and the second half as a chorus with everyone singing.
- This can also prayed-sung as a round, with or without accompaniment.
 ‘Schafe können sicher weiden’, from his secular cantata ‘Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd’, BWV 208, 1713
 Text by Salomon Franck, the Weimar court poet