One of the verses which have been incorporated into our Selichot prayers is David’s plea, “Do not cast me at the time of old age; when my strength is depleted, do not abandon me” (Tehillim 71:9). (In Tehillim, this verse is written in the singular form, as formulated by King David – “Al tashlikheini…tikach mimeni”; in our Selichot, we modify this verse, changing it to a prayer on behalf of the entire nation – “Al tashlikheinu…tikach mimenu.”) The simple meaning of this prayer is that it is a plea for assistance during our condition of frailty in old age. When our physical strength declines, we are no longer capable of caring for ourselves, and we thus plead to God to assist us in our time of weakness and lend us the extra support we need. Metzudat David adds that David’s intent in this prayer is to prove to one and all that even during his younger, healthy years, it was God who brought him his success. If he would suffer depravation during old age, people would naturally assume that when he had his strength he was capable of great achievement, but now that his physical rigor declined, he is helpless. David wanted God to assist him in old age in order to demonstrate that throughout his life, even as he led successful battles and built an empire, it was God who made these accomplishments possible.
Rashi, however, offers a surprising – and powerful – explanation of this verse, writing, “If I have become old in sins – meaning, I have sinned abundantly.” According to Rashi, David here uses the condition of old age euphemistically, as a reference to sinfulness. The frailty of old age allegorically expresses the “frailty” of the sinner, and thus this prayer expresses our wish that God does not abandon us even if we are guilty of many offenses.
How might we understand this analogy between sinning “abundantly” and old age?
As several writers have explained, falling into a habitual routine of wrongful conduct leaves a person weak and helpless like a physically frail patient. Just as physical decline causes a person to lose his ability to care for himself, so does spiritual decline make it exceedingly difficult – albeit never impossible – for an individual to recover. Once sin has become entrenched in one’s pattern of conduct, that person becomes like a frail elderly person, with his capabilities compromised. We therefore beg the Almighty to stay at our side and help us when this happens, when we become spiritually frail, when we’ve hit rock bottom, or when we find ourselves struggling to change our habits. We turn to Him and ask that He assist us in our efforts to improve in spiritual “old age,” when sin has already become habitual and we feel incapable of breaking our bad habits. Rather than despair of ever changing our conduct, we recognize that we are capable of change and beg the Almighty to help us make it happen.