Tehillim 91: "You, Hashem, Are My Refuge!"
An elucidation of a psalm whose recital is especially appropriate at this time, based on the classical commentaries, by Rabbi Shmuel Kraines.
The 91st psalm of Tehillim, which our Sages call Shir shel Pegai’m (Song of [Protection from]Calamities), was composed by Moshe when he ascended to heaven to take the Torah in face of the fierce opposition of powerful angels. He returned unscathed, glowing with Divine splendor, and holding the prized Luchos in his arms. In this psalm, he speaks about how he merited to be sheltered under Hashem’s wing, and he encourages us to do the same.
One might ask: This is all true when Hashem dwells amongst us, but now that the Beis HaMikdash has been destroyed and we were sent into exile because of our sins, does He still care so much about us? The Sages say He certainly does, and they explain this with a parable: An expectant woman quarreled with her mother, who ascended to the loft. When she heard her daughter scream upon the onset of the birth pains, she screamed along with her. The neighbors asked her, “Why do you scream? Are you giving birth?!” She explained, “Even though my daughter has angered me, I cannot bear to hear her scream, so I scream as well.” So too, Hashem says: “My House has been destroyed and My children have been taken away in chains — shall I not feel their distress?”
We recite this psalm in the bedtime Shema in order to confer protection upon our souls as they ascend to heaven for the night, and we recite it several times when escorting the soul of the deceased. The Zohar advises reciting it whenever the forces of evil dominate in the world. It is especially suitable for wartime: the Chashmonaim would recite it when they went out to battle and thereby merited supernatural victories. Now our Gedolim have directed us to recite it regularly as we go through the present hazardous period of war and troubles. Let us explore its meaning.
He who resides in the concealment of the Most High, in the shade of Almighty shall he lodge. Hashem is above all beings, and mightier than any power; He can do as He pleases. Even if a person deserves to be punished for his past sins, Hashem may choose to grant him sanctuary and to conceal him from the eye of the Accusing Angel.
I (Moshe) say of Hashem, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust!” You should do the same. The Sages teach that when a person places his trust in Hashem alone, He declares: “You have trusted in My name; I swear that this merit will stand for you!”
For He will spare you from entrapment and from devastating pestilence.
With His pinions shall He cover you, and beneath His wings shall you shelter; His faithfulness is like a shield and armor! [Alternatively, the latter phrase means: Hashem's Truth (i.e., the Torah) is a shield for whoever is involved with its study.
You shall not fear from the dread of night, from the arrow that flies by day. Hashem will protect you even from calamities that come unseen and without warning.
From devastating spiritual forces that strike at night and in the afternoon.
A thousand shall fall by your left side, and a myriad by your right side, but they shall not approach you. The left hand, which performs only the mitzvah of tefillin, has the power to overcome one thousand spiritual forces; the right hand, which is primary in the performance of all other mitzvos, has the merit to overcome ten times that number.
You shall but gaze with your eyes, and the retribution of the wicked you will behold.
For by saying, “You, Hashem, are my refuge!” you have placed your abode on high! By proclaiming Hashem as your only refuge and truly believing this, it is as if you are with Him in heaven, and no being on earth can approach you to cause harm.
No evil shall befall you, and no affliction shall approach your tent. Your family, too, will be protected by the merit of your trust in Hashem.
For He shall command His angels concerningyou, to guard you wherever you go.
They shall carry you upon their hands, lest your foot strike a stone. That is, lest you stumble upon the traps of the yetzer hara, which is called “a stone.”
Upon lions and serpents you shall tread; you shall trample young lions and snakes. Hashem will grant you victory over all foes, no matter how formidable they may appear to be.
Says Hashem: He has pined for Me, so I shall rescue him; I shall fortify him for he knows My name. Hashem is especially attentive when someone calls Him by His Four-Letter Name and knows its meaning.
He shall call Me and I shall answer him; I am with him in hisdistress, I shall spare him and accord him honor. Not only does Hashem answer the call of His people and spare them from their enemies, but He will also lead them to victory and glory.
I will satiate him with lengthy days, and I will show him My salvation! SinceHashem shares the distress of whoever seeks shelter with Him, He considers it as if He is saving Himself.
The subsequent psalm is Mizmor Shir L’yom HaShabbos. This alludes to the idea that whoever safeguards the Shabbos will merit Hashem’s salvation.
Sources: Midrash Tehillim, Yalkut Shimoni, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, R’ Avraham ben Ramoch, Rokeach, Metzudos, and Malbim;Zohar (Bereishis 48a); Magen Avraham 275:1.