“I will rescue him and honor him.” (91:15)
Psalm 91 is commonly read as part of the Jewish funeral liturgy. In that context, it suggests that one who has faith and fidelity in God’s sheltering presence will be protected from harm and live to a ripe old age. To my mind, however, there is an implied promise of salvation beyond the grave that is more important than the immediate promise of long life. The person who embraces a life of mitzvah will be honored during his or her lifetime to be sure, but beyond as well.
“For it is a law for Israel.” (81:5)
What makes us Israel is a shared sense of law, of obligation. We are Israel when we clean our homes and celebrate Passover. We are Israel when we are conscious of the contents of the food which we put into our bodies. We are Israel when we rest from creative acts on Shabbat. We are Israel when we join a Jewish community for prayer. We are Israel when we celebrate a boy’s birth with circumcision, celebrate puberty with bar or bat mitzvah, celebrate marriage with a huppah, and commemorate a death with Shiva.
“He cuts off the breath of princes.” (76:13)
We all die, rich and poor, celebrity and unknown, powerful and vulnerable. This is true in a narrow sense, that every human being is mortal with a limited life span. However, this is not to say that we all live out our allotted years. Wealth buys better health care, which extends life. People living in poverty often eat a less healthy diet, lack easy access to basic preventative health care, live in a less healthy environment, and cannot afford life-extending medications and treatment for serious illness. If we achieve a world in which paupers and princes both live out their maximum genetically determined life span, we will see the coming of the Messiah.
“The wise die; together [with] the foolish and ignorant, they perish.” (49:11)
Human beings cannot think or buy their way out of death. Our limited lifespan, which could be interrupted at any moment with illness or accident or sudden trauma, is our soul’s only chance at bodily existence*. This can be terrifying, energizing, or both. Some people spend a wasted part of their lives focused on fearing and fighting death. Some people frantically chase possessions or pleasurable experiences. In both cases, because of their fear and negative obsession, they miss opportunities to do some real good. Let your mortality energize you in pursuit of building a better world for others.
*For those who believe in reincarnation, you of course get multiple chances to live and die.
“… to cut off their memory from the earth. (34:17)
When I get to the end of my life, I’d like to have made a difference. I know it’s not reasonable to think that 50 years after my death that I will be remembered as anything other than a name, and after another 50 years, probably not even that, so my goal is more modest. I’d like to be remembered for something for a generation or two. Having children is one way to guarantee that your memory will not be immediately cut off. Having the means to leave a financial legacy such as a named endowment fund or family foundation is another way. If it is within your power, how to you want to be remembered?