Chabad’s custom is to read a portion of Psalms (Tehillim, in Hebrew) every day—to complete the reading of the entire book every month. Some prefer to read all 150 Psalms weekly. There is also a custom to read all of the Psalms on the first day of a new Jewish month before the Morning Prayer.
Followers of Chabad, as I am, are devoted to the Psalms. They recite the daily portion after completion of the Morning Prayers. For many years this has been my custom. There are pencil marks, arrows, and check-marks throughout my book of Psalms.
One practice that I have only recently taken on is to recite the Psalm corresponding to one’s age before saying the regularly prescribed daily portion. To be clear: since a birthday marks the end of the birthday year celebrated, the Psalm to be recited beginning on a birthday is for the next one. When I turned seventy-one, for example, I had completed seventy-one years of life and am now living in my seventy-second year. So, the Psalm I am reciting every morning until my next birthday is Psalm 72. It would be great if I could finish them all this way, and have to start over, but….”
Our rebbes taught us that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, psalms were sung by the Levites as part of the Temple liturgy. Following the Temple’s destruction, many of the psalms became part of the standard prayer service.
In Midrash Tehillim 4:1, we find the following statement attributed to Rabbi Yehudah by Rabbi Yudan: “Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times.” That is to say that the psalms are not to be limited to one historical context, to only one point in time. We are encouraged to read them, looking for what they say to us now, about our lives.
I use Kehot’s edition of Psalms: Tehillim, Ohel Yosef Yitzchak, with English Translation for my daily recitation of Tehillim. The publishers state that their purpose is not to provide a book for study but rather for supplication. There is no verse-by-verse commentary, for example. Instead, there are annotations throughout the book to facilitate reading the psalms as supplications.
Here’s an example from the first Psalm: “This Psalm inspires man to study Torah and avoid sin. One who follows this path is assured of success in all his deeds, whereas the plight of the wicked is the reverse.” Psalm 30, my favorite, is preceded by this note: “This Psalm teaches one not to be distressed if God visits suffering upon him in this world, for only through suffering can one enter the World to Come. Even one of great spirtual stature should realize that his stability is not guaranteed, but that all is in the hands of God.”
I just had a birthday, number 71, and could not help recalling this verse from Psalm 90, verse 10: “The days of our lives number seventy years, and if in great vigor, eighty years; most of them are but travail and futility, passing quickly and flying away.” It made me think that I am living on borrowed time, so to speak, that I need to understand this and use my time wisely.
But how to do that, that is, to use time wisely? What should I be doing? The answer to these questions is suggested in verse 12. “Teach us…to reckon our days, that we may acquire a wise heart.” Notice the phrase “a wise heart.” It does not say “a smart head.” Where do we find wise hearts? We can find them in our parents, or if need be, in the memory of our parents. We can find them in teachers, in loved ones; we can find them in our children. My children have taught me far more than I have taught them.
At seventy-one, I want to gain a heart of wisdom earnestly, devote more time to listening to others, and read books left for us by our wise ancestors. In God’s mercy, if I live to seventy-two, I would like to be able to say that in the past year, I worked faithfully to gain a heart of wisdom.
“When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have set in place—what is man that you should remember him, son of man that You should be mindful of him? Yet, You have made him but a little less than the angels, and crowned him with honor and glory.”Psalm 8:4-6. Ohel Yosef Yitzchak, Kehot.
I am a Jew and have written above from my Jewish perspective and personal practice. But the suggestion to use our time to gain a heart of wisdom is universal, not limited to any one tradition, religious or secular. One of my favorites of the ancient Greeks is the tragic poet Sophocles (c.496-406 BCE). In Antigone, he writes:
There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.
May it be so; may I learn to be wise.
All the best,