A thousand may fall at your left side, ten thousand at your right, but it shall not reach you. (91:7)
“It shall not reach you.” It is both strange and significant that the ‘it’ is not explicitly named, either in this verse or in the following verse, “You will see it with your own eyes ….” In the binding of Isaac narrative, Isaac asks his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Isaac was holding the wood; his father was holding the fire and the knife, but Isaac doesn’t mention the knife, clearly the most important and the most frightening object of the three. (Gen. 22:6-7) Based on the context, the thing-that-is-not-named is the plague, the trap, the terror, the arrow, and the scourge, harm and disease — in other words, death.
I associate this Psalm with the end of Shabbat and with funerals. We read it while carrying the casket to the grave, and we read it shortly before Havdalah. Liminal moments are moments of transition and passage – Shabbat to weekday, life to death. In a religious or anthropological context, these kind of threshold moments are times of danger.
Shabbat time is stable; weekday time is stable. The moments in between the two represent unstable and unprotected time. Therefore, the liturgy includes Psalm 91, a Psalm speaking of shelter, refuge, and protection.
An unburied body brings us uncomfortably close to death. In older times (and still in many Israeli funerals today), the body is not enclosed in a casket, it is simply laid on a bier and covered. Therefore, Psalm 91 is recited, a prayer of protection from death.
We all know that life is a terminal condition. Death is unavoidable,even though Jewish tradition envisions a messianic era in which we have conquered death. Eventually, we will succumb to the inevitable. I remind myself periodically that life is not a race. The one who reaches the finish line more quickly does not get a prize! We all get to the end sooner or later, but the goal of life is to slow down and pay attention to the experience along the way.