02/08/2012 11:32 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

The Oscars, the Rabbi, Shakespeare and Psalm 90

Last week Los Angeles Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of L.A.'s Simon Wiesenthal Center, took time off from his day job -- documenting and attempting to prevent man's inhumanity to man -- to handicap the Oscars for the New York Times. (Hier, who also produces documentaries, is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) Among other things, the rabbi expressed admiration for the hero of neo-silent "The Artist," who, by accepting what life (and the talkies) have dealt him, allows himself the space to find love and become a dancer. According to the Times's paraphrase, Hier remarked that this reminded him of "a passage in the Psalms about stretching one's allotted years to 80, 90 or more by showing inner strength."

That read a bit like much like a pop-up ad: Stretch your allotted years to 80, 90 or more! So I opened the Psalter (in Hebrew Tehillim), to the only passage that throws around those numbers, Psalm 90, verse 10.

The verse in Hebrew is
יְמֵי-שְׁנוֹתֵינוּ בָהֶם שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְאִם בִּגְבוּרֹת
וְרָהְבָּם, עָמָל וָאָוֶן:
כִּי-גָז חִישׁ, וַנָּעֻפָה.

The King James Bible translates this as:

The days of our years are three score years and ten [70 years];
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore [80] years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Psalm 90 is probably the Psalter's most intense investigation of the fleetingness and insufficiency of life, especially compared to God's infinitude. It likens our time on earth to grass: "In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth....For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told."

"A tale that is told." That rang a bell. I would eat my plumed hat if Shakespeare didn't have Psalm 90 in front of him as he wrote MacBeth's soliloquy:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time...
Life's...a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

A few hundred years later, Samuel Beckett would condense this into one chilling sentence: "the gravedigger lays on the [obstetrician's] forceps." That is, we're pulled instantly from the womb to the tomb.

But unlike Shakespeare and Beckett, the Psalms don't traffic in existential darkness any more than they do in unthinking optimism. Psalm 90 builds to a petition to God: not to reduce our sentences, but to make sense of them: "teach us to number our days, that we may gain a wise heart."

The divine response is not recorded, which may be just as well. In the book of Job, which makes a similar demand, God's "teaching" is basically: "You wouldn't undestand and you have a lot of nerve asking." And yet neither Judaism nor Christianity really wants to let the petition simply hang there. One Christian reading is to say that the Psalm, as written by Israelites (it's attributed to Moses), could go no further than requesting, because the "teaching" that makes sense of life and death is Christ. Obviously that line of argument is unavailable to Jews. The Mishnah Tractate Avot, however, fills in the blank, explaining explicitly how to number our days:

"At five years old," it explains, "a person should study the Scriptures, at 10 years for the Mishnah, at 13 for the commandments, at 15 for the Talmud, at 18 for the bridechamber, at 20 for one's life pursuit, at 30 for authority, at 40 for discernment, at 50 for counsel, at 60 to be an elder, at s70 for gray hairs, at 80 for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at 90 for decrepitude, and at a 100 a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world."

Centenarians have to love that last line. It's not the Willard Scott approach.

Yet a third reading looks to the Psalm's final verse. The earlier passage about life extension is really a bit of a red herring: its message is that the additional time will mean only more "labor and sorrow." But in the last clause, having already asked for enlightenment, the prayer now asks a blessing: "... let the beauty of God be upon us; establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it." That is, grant us the grace to make something of what we've got, by our own efforts. So it's not just the gravedigger laying on the forceps.

Rabbi Hier's film review seems to combine the time frame from the middle of the Psalm with the attitude at the end. And on the evidence of the Times story his reading seems to work for him. For a guy past his three score and ten (Hier was born in 1939) whose day job is hardly jolly, he appears to be having a pretty good time.