The poet of Psalm 71 recalls a lifetime of relationship with God and pleads, “Do not fling me off in time of old age” (verse 7). We chant this line as part of our High Holyday liturgy. My teacher, Rabbi Abe Twerski, M.D., recently turned ninety-years old. When I visited him in Jerusalem last year, he was in great physical pain. He quoted this line and said to me, “Now, I understand its meaning. We ask God not to bring our demise quickly, but to do so incrementally so that we might prepare for each phase.” Fortunately, Rabbi Twerski’s pain has reduced. And I continue to feel the power of this Psalm’s focus on the fears and challenges of old age.
This Psalm is distinctive for its use of phrases from other psalms. Robert Alter writes that some claim that Psalm 71 is “merely an assemblage of snippets from other psalms.” And yet, there is way to see these as echoes conveying that with old age comes an accumulation of experiences and memories that inform the present.
The Psalm is composed of two parts: 1-13 focusing on request and 14-24 on praise. If you take out the middle word, each section is exactly the same length (101 words). And that middle word is “V’ani”- “And as for me.” For this is a remarkably personal Psalm revealing the vulnerabilities and yearnings of an old person.
Classic commentators identify this Psalm, which has no introductory line, as recited by King David toward the end of his life when he is pursued by his rebellious son, Avshalom. Regardless of who wrote it or when, a close reading reveals great artistry, honesty, a faithfulness.