Psalm 71

Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me! (71:9)

The context of this Psalm is a prayer from the Psalmist to God. Bear with me for a moment, because I want to suggest that to understand this verse as a heartfelt plea from an aged individual for God to embrace him and give him strength in old age doesn’t really make sense. Such a plea is whiney and ungrateful.

Aging and failing strength happens to virtually everyone, and when it doesn’t happen, when a person dies at a young age, we consider it an exceptional tragedy. On one hand, most people want to live lot an advanced age, even though they know that as they age, their physical vigor will decline. On the other hand, the same people might bemoan their physical decline.

A spiritually healthy person may not welcome the physical decline, but finds a way to adjust his expectations so that he is not continually frustrated by thinking about what he used to be able to do but can do no longer. As our strength fades, we should not be crying to God, we should be thanking God that we’ve loved long enough to experience the sunset of years.

If we imagine that the Psalmist is addressing his child or other caregiver instead of God, the verse has a very different valence. Gone is the whininess and ingratitude, replaced by the reality that we owe our elders extra care as they enter their advanced years. The speaker is pleading with those around him not to abandon him just because he can no longer keep up physically, no longer see well, especially at night, and no longer hear many of the voices around him.

There ought to be no shame in needed extra help. A spiritually healthy person may not welcome physical decline, but accepts with equanimity the assistance offered to him.

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Psalm 67

November 24

May the earth yield its produce; may God, our God, bless us. (67:7)

The American Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. The cornucopia, a horn overflowing with produce, is a symbol of Thanksgiving. The Jewish holiday of thanksgiving celebrated earlier in the fall, is Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Notably, while it is a holiday of celebration and harvest, it also contains significant elements acknowledging that no matter how overflowing our pantries, our existence is nonetheless precarious.

We read the Book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot to remind ourselves that our material possessions come and go, largely out of our control. We pray for rain to remind ourselves that no matter how abundant the current harvest, next year’s success depends on God’s blessing of rain. We eat our festive meals in the Sukkah, whose fragile structure open to the elements under a roof made from branches reminds us to be grateful for every blessing. Easy times and hard times blend together, just as eating at a Sukkah table full of tasty food leaves us open to heat, cold, insects, and rain.

The one line prayer of the Psalmist is a prayer within two realms. May the earth continue to share its bounty with us, and may God bless us with an open heart, able to see the blessing embedded within our troubles. I’ll conclude with the following prayer (author unknown):

May we have enough trials to keep us strong, enough sorrow to keep us human, enough hope to keep us happy, enough failure to keep us humble, enough success to keep us eager, enough friends to give us comfort, enough enthusiasm to make us look forward, enough wealth to meet our needs, and enough determination to make each day a better day than the last.

Psalm 65

You take care of the earth and irrigate it; You enrich it greatly, with the channel of God full of water; You provide grain for men; for so do You prepare it. Saturating its furrows, leveling its ridges, You soften it with showers, You bless its growth. You crown the year with Your bounty; fatness is distilled in Your paths; the pasturelands distill it; the hills are girded with joy. The meadows are clothed with flocks, the valleys mantled with grain; they raise a shout, they break into song. (65:10-14)

Shopping at a large supermarket may not always feel like a joyful experience, beginning with finding a parking place, walking to the store, slogging through crowds of people to get a cart and negotiate the aisles, finding in which aisle the produce you are seeking is located, and waiting in line at the checkout. The hassle of shopping might in fact mask the absolute miracle of what you are able to buy. How many people’s livelihood depends on the produce that you are buying? How many hours, how much sweat and worry did they invest into growing it? So much of their living depends on factors out of their control, such as the quality and quantity of rain, the sun, the temperature.

In the mid-1940’s, Florida frozen orange juice concentrate began to be marketed as “liquid sunshine.” It takes a partnership of effort to transform the energy of the sun and a handful of materials and minerals into an orange, a sweet pepper, or a banana. And to take this one step further, walk down the bread aisle and imagine the additional set of people who took the raw grain and processed it into various flavors in a variety of shapes. The traditional berakha is “… who brings forth bread from the earth,” but we know that this, too, only happens in partnership with farmers and bakers (along with those who manage the transportation issues of getting the raw ingredients to the bakery and the finished produce to the store).

So next time you go to the supermarket, keep the Psalmist’s words in mind and think about the joyful pastures and hills singing their produce to life, and think about all of the people whose lives are dedicated to bringing you the song of the meadows and valleys.