Psalm 119

“In my heart I treasure your word.” (119:11)

The words of the person or persons who are the elders of our community or whom we consider to be our mentors are gold. We treasure them and store them away in our hearts. Long after the person is gone, we take out their words in times of need and the words comfort us and give us wisdom to solve the problems. We freely pass them along to others who might benefit. A body passes away, but when we share words of wisdom, they live forever.

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Psalm 118

I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of Adonai. (118:17)

There is a difference between “not dying” and “living.” In this last Psalm of Hallel, whose purpose is to express our joy at the fact that we have survived to celebrate another festival, the Psalmist reminds us that merely surviving is not enough. I have met people who have given up on living their lives while they are still alive. They believe that:

  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There is no point in reading, learning, studying, or challenging their assumptions because they have decided their mind is made up and nothing will change it.
  • “I tried that years ago and I didn’t like it.” Whether it is food or another kind of experience, if I didn’t like it last time I tried it or even if I have never tried it, now is not the time to start trying something new.
  • “I think of nothing but my aches and pains … let me tell you about them.” An aging body hurts and I am not minimizing the sometimes considerable pain. However, telling and retelling the story of pain leaves one trapped in a cycle of perpetually measuring one’s body for death.
  • “I’m bored. There is nothing to do. I’m lonely. I don’t go anywhere.” Sometimes we make choices and sometimes our declining physical ability makes the choice for us. However, within the circle in which we are able to live, we have the choice either to complain about the things that are happening outside of the circle of our lives, or to live to the boundaries as best we can.

Those who truly lives their lives believe in:

  • Learning new things
  • Trying new foods and new experiences
  • Looking for meaningful ways to fill up their days (volunteering), and
  • Finding a reason every day to be grateful.

Psalm 90

The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. (90:10)

The title of this Psalm is “A Prayer of Moses.” According to Deuteronomy, Moses lived to the age of 120. Although he had his share of aggravation, dealing with a sometimes uncooperative Israelite people, to characterize the best of his years as “trouble and sorrow” is pessimistic, to say the least.

Were I to write a Psalm imagining Moses contemplating his life and speaking with God, my Psalm would focus on the miracles and the redemption from Egypt. “You give life to human beings, nurture and sustain us in the desert of our lives; when all seems bleak, you are a source of blessing, comfort, and strength.”

The historian Salo Baron argued that the age of the “Lachrymose view of Jewish history” is over. No longer should we write history from the perspective that “gentile persecution and Jewish suffering have been the shaping forces of Jewish history.” Rather, as he said in a 1975 interview, “suffering is part of the destiny’ of the Jews, but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia has an article entitled “Optimism and Pessimism” arguing that optimism is a fundamental Jewish value.

Moses died a hero, so much so in fact that the Torah deliberately obscures his burial place lest it become a place of pilgrimage and Moses take the place of God as a focus of worship. Moses died with his zest for life intact (Deuteronomy 34:7). Many of us, perhaps most of us, will experience significant physical infirmity at the end of our lives. However, isn’t it a worthy goal to remain positive and energetic to the best of our physical ability right up to the moment we die?

Whether we live through the century mark or whether our years number only 70 or 80, let us live them in the light of optimism, rather than the darkness of pessimism. Our years might fly by, but let us notice and celebrate the moments of joy as they come – the births, the b’nai mitzvah, the high school and college graduations, the weddings, the birthdays and anniversaries and other celebrations.