Psalm 90: Teach us to Count Our Days

What value is there to our lives, which "stream by like a dream"? What significance can there be to mortal man, who sprouts like the grass in the morning, only to wither away by nightfall? What consequence can there be to a fleeting life of seventy years, "or with strength, eighty years," compared to the eternity of God — "From the beginning of the world to its end, You are God" [90:2]? This psalm, "a prayer of Moses," confronts these fundamental questions of life.

The Other Side

The first eleven verses are indeed discouraging, stressing both the futility of our transient existence, and God's disappointment and anger at how we waste what little time we have. "For all our days pass away in Your fury; we waste our years like an utterance" [90:9]. The word fury (in Hebrew, evrah) comes from the word "eiver", meaning "the other side." This fury reflects a divine frustration that we expend our efforts on inconsequential matters — on "the other side." We toil for fleeting goals that are the opposite of what should be our aspirations.

What does it mean that our years are "like an utterance"? When our days are filled with deeds that contradict "ratzon Hashem," God's intent for the universe, then even the sum of all our years will be but a single, incoherent noise. Our deeds over the years are like numerous sounds and noises, an expression of our varied strivings and labors. But their combination contains no significance, no true meaning; the sounds do not form intelligible words and sentences, since each individual deed was squandered in our labors for "the other side."

We are sadly prone to delusions. "The days of our lives are seventy years .. and their pride is toil and deception" [90:10]. When compared to eternity, any finite length of time is of no value. If we know how to direct our ephemeral lives towards eternal goals, then they can be uplifted and permeated with significance. But when human pride and glory blind our eyes, we can be misled into thinking that there is ultimate meaning to temporal life, in life's superficial and external aspects. Such a mistaken viewpoint brings a terrible toil and deception, for there is no limit to human greed in chasing after a life dedicated to worthless goals.

The Light of Prophecy

But how can we know what is God's purpose for the universe? If our minds could grasp the God's intention as to the purpose of life, then we could use our intellectual powers to connect our lives to their sublime foundations. But our knowledge and powers of reasoning are limited, while the content of God's purpose in creating the universe is boundless. We are not even aware of the extent of the disparity between our physical wants and the great light of divine will by which God governs His world.

How then can we know how to live a meaningful life? As the psalmist pleads, "Teach us how to count our days" [90:12] – reveal to us how we may make our days count!

Our actions are the product of limited human understanding, constrained by our physical nature. Our only deliverance is through the enlightenment of Divine knowledge, i.e., the faculty of prophecy. When the light of Godly knowledge shines on all aspects of life, then all of our actions will have eternal import. The details of life will take on true significance, and the overall direction of life will be governed by divine wisdom.

Now we can understand why this psalm is "a prayer of Moses, the man of God." Such a psalm is appropriate for a unique personality like Moses, whose overriding desire was to cleave to the Life of all worlds. Only Moses, who demanded at Sinai "Please show me Your ways," truly grasped the connection between human existence and "ratzon Hashem." The master-prophet of the Torah understood that living a life of meaning requires prophetic knowledge of God's will. "Teach us how to count our days so that we will attain a heart of wisdom" [90:12]. The phrase "we will attain" (in Hebrew, navi) could also be translated as 'prophet': "Teach us how to count our days – as a prophet (with) a heart of wisdom."

Awareness of Divine Purpose in Our Lives

A superficial view of life is the result of unawareness of the Divine purpose in the universe. During certain periods we may have difficulty sensing the ultimate purpose, but this meaning will be fully revealed in future generations. Thus we pray, "May Your work be revealed to Your servants" ; yet we recognize that it is possible that "Your splendor will be revealed (only) to their children" [90:16] — in future times.

The psalm concludes with a prayer that our actions should correspond to God's intent for the universe. Then we will feel a divine pleasantness in our lives. "May the pleasantness of God be upon us; Let the work of our hands be established for us; the work of our hands, let it be established" [90:17]. Why the repetition of the phrase, "the work of our hands"? It is not enough that our actions will advance positive and significant goals. We pray that the actions themselves should have a sublime sweetness due to the Divine light infusing them, as their inner worth is revealed.

[adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II, pp. 69-74]

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