Ps. 51: Yearning For God's Holy Presence

Rafi Ellenson (he/his) is a literary translator, a first-year student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, and a Rabbinic Intern in Teen Learning at Hebrew College’s Prozdor. A graduate of Goddard College, Rafi most recently lived in Jerusalem studying literary translation, movement, and leadership development on the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. In addition to his rabbinic studies, he is currently translating a book-length collection of the writer E. Ethelbert Miller’s poetry.


It is 2011, I am 17 years old, and it is Yom Kippur. Just one month ago, on the first day of my senior year of high school, I fell ill with my first episode of what would later be diagnosed as Bipolar disorder. I had taken on more than I could handle at school and the unforgiving college application process wore me down seemingly beyond repair.

Four days before Yom Kippur I was prescribed the drug Zoloft, but my mental state took a turn for the worse. For the first time since childhood, I couldn’t sit in synagogue or fast. My parents encouraged me to eat leftovers in hopes that I could get up from the couch and take a walk outside in nearby Central Park. While my condition ebbed and flowed over the next several years, I entered early adulthood unable to practice the rituals of Yom Kippur and the High Holidays without weeping and feeling oppositional. All of the talk of human sinfulness and punishment felt cruel to me given my loneliness, disorientation, and fear. 

It was during these years of intense depression that I learned a song that brought me to Psalm 51. I was especially intrigued by the second verse, which attempts to situate King David’s cry for healing within the narrative arc of his life. The editor of this psalm suggests that the monarch wrote this poem after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his affair with Bath Sheva. Framed this way, Psalm 51 becomes a more concrete and embodied plea for healing. The psalmist’s call for a “pure heart” and a “renewed and steadfast spirit” (verse 12) become more poignant when one imagines them emerging directly from this painful episode in the author’s life.

Still, I was disturbed by the implication that God’s “holy spirit” (verse 13) might have been removed from me not because of my misdeeds, but because of brain chemistry. While the superscription provides a fascinating literary context for the poem, it also left me feeling confused, angry, and existentially adrift. Throughout the darker periods of my illness, I felt lost and unable to access God’s presence. Like the psalmist, I longed to “rejoice” in God’s helping presence.

At roughly the same time I came upon a teaching in Genesis Rabbah about the life of the patriarch Jacob that provided me with a measure of solace and hope in its understanding of the holy spirit. Commenting on Jacob’s state of being after his son Joseph was stolen from him, the midrash states that “the holy spirit disappeared” from before Jacob’s eyes and ears. The emotional and physical dimensions of the patriarch’s broken heartedness, his depression, felt immediately familiar to me. I knew the physical manifestations of Bipolar disorder that were constant companions to my emotional trauma. Reading about Jacob allowed me to feel accompanied in my mental illness; my ancestor was with me even when I could not access God’s presence.  

Though I struggled for many years with severe depression and mania, and today still actively manage my Bipolar disorder, I am thankful to be living now with increased physical and emotional health. I am deeply grateful to be at a stage at which I can say that God has indeed opened “my lips” and allowed me to give “praise” (verse 17) for the many gifts in my life. As I prepare to enter the High Holy Day season, I feel prepared to carefully sift through the complexities of my life over the last year—including the fear and sadness elicited by the pandemic and the anger and soul accounting (cheshbon nefesh) brought on by the social uprising. In entering this awesome season of teshuvah (return and repentance), I feel God’s holy presence along with the support of my ancestors and the love of my family and friends.


Read more about the PsalmSeason here & subscribe for email updates.


If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

"It is permissible within our religion to defer, or to make up your fast later if you're feeling sick."
From experience, I know that Hispanic families had been greatly, and disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and survey data from the 2021 PRRI-IFYC Religious Diversity and Vaccine Survey corroborates this.
As the last few days of Ramadan are upon us – take our interactive quiz to find out how much you really know about this holy month.
We weren’t sure what to expect or how to navigate the complexities of getting to know colleagues from a distance, but IFYC team members Silma and Nadia welcomed us into their homes, their traditions, and their faith.
As the final project for the class, we wanted to do something that would make our campus a more inclusive, interreligious place.
IFYC is collecting prayers and meditations from diverse faiths to show our solidarity with the people of India, as well as links to charitable organizations that people can support.
Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.
“Humanitarian Day embodies why Islam is relevant in America today. It’s why many Black Muslims embraced Islam, to be part of the solution, not only in their personal lives, but in their communities." - Margari Aziza Hill, MuslimARC
Recently, I asked a group of IFYC Alumni to share what they do in one sentence. I love their responses because they capture who they are so well.
As a nurse and a physician occupying different spheres in relation to the patient, Anastasia and I held comparable but also differing views about the role of religion and interfaith in the realm of patient care.
El movimiento necesita artistas, educadores, trabajadores de la salud, padres, funcionarios electos, científicos, clérigos, directores generales, y cuantas personas sea posible para hablar en contra de la injusticia donde sea que la veamos.
The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, as well as housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.
En esta foto del sábado 9 de mayo de 2020, el Rev. Fabián Arias lleva a cabo un servicio en casa, al lado de los restos de Raúl Luis López quien murió de COVID-19 el mes previo, en el barrio Corona del distrito de Queens en Nueva York.
It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon.
In the grip of a deadly second wave of COVID-19, religious charities and faith-based organizations are among the many civil society groups that have stepped up to mobilize relief efforts.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.