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 — Moses’ prayer — confronts these fundamental questions of life.
The psalm’s 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 — toiling on “the other side.“ We work for fleeting goals, the opposite of what our true aspirations should be.
What does it mean that our years are wasted “like an utterance”? When our days are filled with deeds that go against ratzon Hashem, God’s intent for the universe, then the sum total of our years are just a single, incoherent utterance. All our deeds over the years are like a cacophony of noise, the sound of our strivings and labors. But their combination contains no significance, no true meaning. The sounds do not form intelligible words and sentences. All our efforts were 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 insignificant. If we know how to direct our ephemeral lives toward eternal goals, then our days may be uplifted and permeated with significance. But when human arrogance succeeds in blinding our vision, we can be misled into thinking that there is ultimate meaning to temporal, superficial life. Such a mistaken view can bring about terrible toil and deception, for there is no limit to human greed when chasing after worthless goals.
But how can we know what is God’s purpose for the universe? If our minds could grasp God’s intention as to the goal of life, then we could use our intellect to connect our lives to their inner purpose. But our knowledge and powers of reasoning are limited, while 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 brilliant light of Divine will by which God governs His world.
How then can we know how to live a meaningful life? As the psalm pleads, “Teach us how to count our days” (90:12). Reveal to us how we can make our days count!
Our actions are the product of limited understanding, and we are constrained by our physical nature. Only the enlightenment of Divine knowledge, the gift of prophecy, can save us. When the light of Godly knowledge shines on all aspects of life, then our actions will have eternal import. Life’s details will take on true significance, and its overall direction will be governed by Divine wisdom.
Now we can understand why this psalm is “a prayer of Moses, the man of God.” This psalm is appropriate for a unique personality like Moses, whose overriding ambition 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 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.”
A superficial take on life is the result of unawareness of the Divine purpose in the universe. 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,” but it is possible that “Your splendor will be revealed [only] to their children” (90:16) — in future generations.
The psalm concludes with a prayer that our actions should correspond to God’s intent for the universe. Then we will feel a holy joy and pleasantness in our lives.
“May God’s pleasantness 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 is the phrase “the work of our hands” repeated? It is not enough that our actions advance positive and significant goals. We pray that the actions themselves should have a sublime sweetness due to the Divine light infusing them, as we feel their inner significance. Then we will be aware that “God’s pleasantness will be upon us.”
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, pp. 69-74)