Psalm 90: Reflections from the 8th Stage of Life
By Rev. Ed Vaeni and Rabbi Rim Meirowitz
We live in Brooksby Village, 1,350 independent living units, 2,000 people, all eating in the same dining halls. The youngest of us is 62, the oldest perhaps 102. When the psalmist speaks of “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” it hits home.
The life we had before we came here is like a dream; the child we once carried in our arms now helps us carry our groceries. And all of us think, at least once in a while, that our lives have been filled with “toil and trouble.” It actually makes us feel better to grade our lives on a curve!
Eric Erickson’s classic study of the eight stages of life, especially the eighth stage—old-age—is a helpful tool for reflection. It is a challenge to reflect on our life span up to this point with the goal of seeking acceptance of all that we have experienced with as much honesty and courage as possible.
In this context, Psalm 90 has become a source of hope, acceptance, and comfort for us. The psalmist is bold in the face of the briefness and fragility of human life. He is breathtakingly honest about the reason for our short lives filled with toil and trouble: we are consumed by God’s anger—yikes! How can we thrive in the midst of God’s wrath? Verse 11 gives us a clue when it asks, “Who considers the power of your anger?” We must consider it for God’s anger is our way of speaking about the hard parts of our lives that our mistakes, missteps, and sins—intentional or not—have created.
Just as we speak of God’s love and forgiveness, we must also contemplate the anger that might arise from the Divine as a result of constantly dealing with covenant-breaking and self-destructive human beings. Does God actually feel any or all of these emotions? Who can know—we are but finite creatures attempting to fathom the Infinite? But this is our way of framing and processing the full gamut of human experience using the classical language of our Jewish and Christian traditions, connecting us to countless other spiritual seekers across space and time.
Just as we reckon with the notion of God’s anger, we are also listening carefully to the psalmist’s call to “count our days,” that is, to come to grips with our mortality. Learning to accept one’s mortality is no mean feat in a death-defying (and denying) culture that believes that (white and wealthy) people are entitled to live forever and can do so by means of technology and domination.
Weaving together the two previous points, we arrive at what is perhaps the statement in the psalm about the challenge of obtaining a “wise heart.” We take wisdom in this context to mean an ongoing interplay of hope and acceptance as we continue to learn the fine art of humility—living compassionately and purposefully in the time we are given on this earth.
Our goal as old men is to celebrate, instead of denying our mortality. We intend to work on that goal as members of our specific community of elders. When we learn to trust the eighth stage of the life-process using Psalm 90 as a spiritual guide, we trust that God will “satisfy us with steadfast love” and that we will learn to accept and celebrate every single day and event of our short lives, whether they be glad days or days of toil and trouble. Three cheers for mortality! It is truly God’s greatest gift to us right now.
- How do you respond to the writers call for the acceptance of all that we have experienced as part of a life review?
- Why do the writers describe Psalm 90 as a “source of hope”?
- How do Vaeni and Meirowitz understand the reference to God’s wrath in this psalm?
- What is the parting message of these aging men about mortality? How do you respond to this message?
Rabbi Richard Meirowitz was ordained as a Conservative Rabbi in 1975 and joined the Reform movement in 1989. From 1985-1992 Rabbi Rim (as people call him) served as the founding head of The Rashi School. He then went on to serve as the rabbi at Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester from 1997-2014, where he is currently Rabbi Emeritus. In 2020, Rabbi Rim was honored by Hebrew College for his decades of service, leadership, and mentorship.
Reverend Edwin S. Vaeni was ordained in 1973 by the Central Association of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. He spent 44 years engaging in a number of ministries, including as founder and director of an alternative high school for at-risk youth; local church pastor; Community Representative for the former Massachusetts Office for Children; licensed practical nurse; and for the final ten years of his active ministry (ending in 2017), hospice chaplain.