A Thought on “Moses's Prayer” (Psalm 90)
I have mentioned in previous columns that the morning service each day is preceded by a series of Psalms and verses that offer, in general, praise to the Almighty. This section known as P'sukei d'zimrah introduces the main section of the service, the Sh'ma and its blessings and the Amidah. On Shabbat, there are nine additional Psalms added into this portion of the service. We looked at one of them, Psalm 91, Yoshev b'seter elyon, a few weeks ago. That Psalm is preceded both in the Book of Psalms and in the service by Psalm 90, the only Psalm that is attributed to Moses in its heading, “Tefilah l'Moshe ish ha-Elohim” “A prayer of Moses, the Man of God.” That title, “Ish Ha-Elohim” appears only in the final portion of the Torah before Moses blesses the people and then ascends the mountain to die. Because it is in keeping with the theme of this Psalm on our mortality, scholars believe this heading is intrinsic to the Psalm and not an add on. Perhaps the Psalmist imagines Moses in his final hours reflecting on the nature of life.
The rabbis believe that, though there is no indication of this, the next eleven Psalms were also composed by Moses. The Midrash, which sees the whole Book of Psalms to be a composition of King David, imagines that David received this Psalm handed down from Moses and included it in his collection. In this period before his demise, it seems appropriate for Moses to reflect on the shortness of life and of its travails.
Whoever the actual author of this poem was, he chooses to speak in the first person plural and addresses God throughout in direct discourse, in second person. He begins by addressing God, “Lord, You were a shelter for us in every generation.” We saw in Psalm 91 as well this idea that one can seek shelter under God's protection. The Psalmist goes on to compare the infinite life span of the Almighty to our comparatively short time here on earth. “Before the mountains were born, before the earth was formed, from one end of time to the other, mei-olam ad olam, You are God.” As we sing in Adon Olam, God preceded the existence of the universe and when it's all over, He will still remain.
As mighty and powerful as any individual may be in his lifetime, ultimately God returns him to dust. The word “daka” may come from the image of crushing something in a mortar with a pestle. As Abraham says to God, “I am but dust and ashes.” Some commentators read this crushing to refer to the suffering and trouble which may afflict us in life and lead us, in the next phrase, to return to God in repentance, shuvu b'nai Adam, return, O children of Adam.
The Psalmist attempts to grasp what it means to view the world from God's perspective. If one is eternal, then a thousand years must seem like a single day as it passes, like a watch in the night, a period of a few hours. “Life rushes past like a flowing stream, like a night's sleep. In the morning we grow up like grass which in the evening is cut down and dries up.” Time is short and we need to be aware of that.
The writer focuses now on our sinfulness and God's angry response to it. “We are consumed by Your anger and terror-struck by Your fury. You have set our iniquities before You and our hidden sins in the light of Your face. Indeed, all our days pass away under Your wrath; we consume our years like a sigh.” While some may take these lines quite personally, others see them as a general statement about humanity as a whole, the sinfulness of humankind. Rabbi Benjamin Segal, in his commentary on Psalms, writes, “Psalm 90 describes a speaker truly furious with God, whose subconscious leads him to reverse the direction and source of his anger.” The pain and sorrow in our short sojourn here in life seems to enrage the Psalmist and there are days when we too may feel under divine attack.
The Psalmist reminds us that “the days of our years are all of seventy years or, given the strength, eighty years, but the best of them are trouble and sorrow.” Modern science may have extended that period a bit in our day, so that we might well make it past 80, but still, no matter how many years we live, we have to face the difficult challenges of life and as the Psalmist asserts, “They go by speedily, and we fly away.” Again and again, he focuses on God's anger and our fear of Divine punishment. Living now through a pandemic can make us focus on life's fragility and brevity. A previously unknown virus can cut short our lives and our hopes and some may experience it as God's wrath. We live in sobering times and we may wish to lash out at God for allowing such creations in His world, but we recognize that that same God has created those who day after day fight to save life and those whose research will one day find a vaccine or a cure.
Suddenly, the poet turns to God with a prayer. “Limnot yameinu kein hoda” “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a wise heart.” If we are aware of life's brevity, then it behooves us to learn how to make the best use of our time, to number our days, to pay attention to how little time we have and use it well. Having earlier called on us humans to return to God, we now turn to the Lord and call on Him to return to us. We ask how long He is going to remain angry with us and we plead for divine mercy.
The final four verses are a complete turn around from the stormy image of God, furious at our wayward deeds. Here we ask of Him, “Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love that we may sing for joy all our days.” Hard to imagine the same Psalmist who just a few lines before paints this gloomy picture of life filled with trouble and sorrow is now seeking to bask in God's love and sing for joy all our days. He proposes a bargain with God, “Samcheinu kiy'mot initanu” “Give us joy for as many days as You have afflicted us.” Yes, life is short, it has its pain and sorrow, but there are also many days of joy and gladness. We pray that the joyful days may be as numerous as the painful ones (if not moreso.) “Delight us in proportion to the days You have afflicted us.”
We end with a prayer, “Let Your work appear to Your servants, and Your glory be upon us, and the work of our hands – establish upon us; the work of our hands, establish it upon us.”
Rabbi Richard Levy, after commenting on this Psalm in his commentary “Songs Ascending” turns to his reader and asks, “Is this a hopeful Psalm or a depressing one?” He writes, “Few of us experience ourselves as surrounded by God's anger; we may well prefer the opening and closing images of this Psalm, suggesting that we are surrounded by a sense of God as a pleasant dwelling place....But crucial to the speculation about life in this Psalm is the request that God let us know how to make our days count.”
Levy suggests that “we experience the petitions of the poet as though they were granted in our lives: to feel God's love every morning as we awake and begin our day; to search within our afflictions for the joys that God has to show us, but that may be covered up; to look for evidence of the work of God; to explore how we might be be better servants of God....Whether this is a hopeful Psalm or not depends upon us.”