Two seemingly contradictory ideas anchor Jewish thought.
On one hand, beginning with Genesis’ story of Creation, is the notion that our lives matter. They have purpose and meaning, and God charges us with responsibility for what happens on this earth.
But there is also an acknowledgment that our lives are but a fleeting eyeblink.
Psalm 8 articulates the contrast:
“When I behold the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established, what is humanity that You are mindful of them, and our progeny that you take notice of them. But You have made us little lower than the angels and crowned us with honor and glory.” (Psalm 8:4-5)
Psalm 90 further enlightens us:
Of all the 150 Psalms, tradition attributes only Psalm 90 to (the unquestionably all-time most important Jew) Moses. There we read of God’s majestic sovereignty: “Before the mountains were brought forth or even before You formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” (Psalm 90: 2)
The Psalm eloquently reminds us that in God’s view, “A thousand years … are like yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90)
In the grand scheme of things what we deem so crucial will pass by quickly, and our earthly journey will end. But the Psalm urges us to not only be aware of this reality but to confront it head on and, “to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”
During this time of frightful uncertainty, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by Covid-19, the upcoming presidential election and the fears it engenders and whatever individual concerns threaten our well-being.
In the face of all that uncertainty the Psalm concludes with the home that God’s graciousness will be clear to us and that our efforts to make this world a better place really do matter. (Psalm 90:17)
The leading (18th -19th centuries) Hasidic Sage Simcha Bunam taught: Each of us should have two pockets. In one should be a note, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other, “For my sake the world was created.”
When we feel puffed up with our sense of importance, we should look at the first note to remind ourselves that we are merely specks of dust. When we are feeling helpless in the face of the realities that confront us, we should look at the second to reassure ourselves that we are here to make a positive difference in the world in whatever ways we can.
Our tradition urges each of us to find the balance between these polar assertions of Jewish thought.
But when life threatens to throw us into complete despair, let us join the urgent prayer of the Psalmist that God will help us. “establish the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90:17) and have faith that our efforts to make a better world really do matter.