Psalm 90: Path to Immortality

Psalms reach deep within our souls, grab hold of our intestines, and turn us inside out. Overly graphic? So are some of the psalms. The ideas and emotions they express are often raw, touching emotional nerve endings we didn’t know were exposed. The psalms tread on sensitive territory: enemies and abiding hatred, catastrophic loss, hopes dashed, and joy so deep it overwhelms the soul.

Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, tackles mortality and the meaning of life. No polite piety here! The psalm begins by praising the Eternal One, and then contrasts God’s eternality with human brevity and fragility. You reduce man to pulp and You say, “Repent, O sons of man.” A thousand years are to God but the blink of an eye, and we are like grass that blossoms in the morning and withers the same day, cut down and brittle by evening.

Does our brevity mean our existence is meaningless? The psalmist says no. It is our mistakes, our violations of God’s will, our failure to fill our lives with meaning and purpose, that make our lives short. The psalmist is not saying that God directly punishes the evil by cutting short their lives, but rather that lives spent in folly, selfishness, and evil are meaningless because nothing of them has enduring value; hence they are like grass.

The psalmist paints this painfully graphic picture to induce us to ask: is my life meaningful and valuable?

But the psalmist goes further, offering a solution to the eternal conundrum of human mortality. Teach us to number our days so that we may attain a heart of wisdom. By cherishing the time we have enough to do what is right, we make our existence -- however short -- meaningful not only to ourselves but to others, and our temporally fleeting lives come to have enduring value because our achievements and contributions to the world endure beyond us.

The expression, “so that we may attain a heart of wisdom,” is navi levav chochmah in the original Hebrew and the term “attain” here has the same root as the term for prophet. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of Israel, a mystic, philosopher, and scholar, suggested that we might therefore read this phrase, “Teach us to number our days -- as a prophet [with] a heart of wisdom.” Reading the psalm this way, we see that living our lives fully and meaningfully -- so that our short lives have enduring significance -- means living with the awareness of God’s divine purpose in mind. We would not claim to be prophets, but we can still follow the example of Moses, the prophet to whom this psalm is attributed.

There is a temptation today to live for the moment and seek pleasure. Rav Kook’s insight into Psalm 90 reminds us that living for the moment cuts our life’s meaning short. Seeking meaning beyond the moment, and divine purpose to our endeavors, lends our lives a measure of immortality.

May we each learn to number our days so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.