“You prepare a table for me in the full presence of my enemies; You anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Psalm 23: 5
I also understand the “cup” both as a reminder to be grateful for abundance, and also as a source of strength from which to draw when I feel most depleted. The cup is a reminder that there is a constant flow of divine presence that can replenish my soul energy. At times, I need to shift my perspective to find it. It’s a little like standing shivering in the corner of the shower; if I just moved slightly, I would find myself under the flow of warm water raining down. Our cup can be refilled by others. Sometimes, we find unexpected strength when we reach out to offer a kindness to another. The messianic reference to being anointed with oil brings to mind a Hassidic teaching about moshiach consciousness that expresses this: If you always assume that the person sitting next to you is the messiah waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands. And if the messiah then chooses not to appear in your time, it will not matter.
In his book, The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that the psalmist refers differently to God — depending on whether we are being told about God, early in Psalm 23, or whether we are encountering God, later in the text. When we encounter God, we speak directly to “You” but when the psalmist speaks about God, he uses the third person. The Baal Shem Tov included Psalm 23 at the end of the evening service — perhaps hoping that we would encounter God’s healing presence as night descends. The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60 of death — that is, it is a small taste of what death may be like. Jewish tradition offers a comforting daily practice as we enter the scary places that can be evoked by darkness and uncertainty. At bedtime we recite the Sh’ma, the prayer we also say just before death; upon arising in the morning, we recite Modeh/Modah Ani, a prayer of thanksgiving: “I thank You, God for returning my soul to me.” By reciting this prayer of gratitude, we affirm that even in the face of illness and when we face other challenges, we may experience our “cup overflowing with divinity.”
Psalm 23 is popular as a psalm of comfort. Sensing God’s beneficence can be of help to people who are suffering illness. But the phrase “my cup overflows” may be dissonant with the actual experience of suffering. Rabbi Meir tells us in Pirke Avot, “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it…” Our “cup” may well be full of experiences that give us a sense of awe and thankfulness. For someone in a terminal state, however, the “cup” may be overflowing with trepidation. This is why, if sharing this psalm, we should be sensitive when counseling the sick. For those with terminal illnesses, perhaps the phrase, “Into Your hands I commend my spirit” may be more consistent with the peaceful acceptance necessary to help transition from life to death. For those facing less serious illnesses, reflecting on “my cup overflows” may indeed provide awe, thankfulness, and hope. The effective use of literature depends on the stage of illness and the emotional and spiritual maturity of the patient.
—Stuart I. Forman
When I visit hospital patients, they sometimes request that we pray together. They often choose Psalm 23, which is also recited in mourning rituals. The image of God accompanying them through the valley of death’s shadow brings comfort. How do they muster — with sincerity — the words, “my cup overflows”? While some people who have a sophisticated gratitude practice find the phrase meaningful, most people find it puzzling and jarring. An alternate reading of “my cup overflows,” or “cosi revayah,” might inspire a petitionary prayer more congruent with a patient’s feelings. “Spirit of Life, my cup is full to overflowing. I can’t take in any more. You, who sustain me through challenges that feel like enemies, help me bear my burdens and sorrows. Make of me a bigger vessel, so I can face my challenges with grace.” The Baal Shem Tov added Psalm 23 to the liturgy just before the end of the Maariv (evening) service. The Besht, a healer himself, taught the centrality of feeling God’s presence permeating and surrounding all worlds. Perhaps he wanted us to enter the night embracing a “cup” overflowing with divinity. When our cup is too full with sorrow, we can pray to make conscious space in our neshama/soul vessel for God’s presence.