The Jewish blessing LeChaim, to life, represents a bedrock principle of Judaism. And not just because Sholom Aleichem declared as much in Fiddler on the Roof. This is particularly true on Yom Kippur, an anxious day on which we plead with Hashem to extend our lives through the coming year.
All this begs the question: if we pray desperately for life today, just how long can we live? Of course, the traditional Jewish answer is עד מאה ועשרים שנה, which we generally take to mean that the maximum age one can reach is 120 years old. And some try to prove this from a verse that appears in the lead-up to the Mabbul:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”
There’s only one problem: the notion that we can only live to 120 is a myth. And I’ll prove it:
The first clue comes from Rav Shlomo Aviner, who was asked: What is the source of the blessing "Ad Meah Ve-Esrim, until 120"? His typically concise response: “There is no source.”
Second, even after the Flood, there were many, including the Avot and Imahot, whose lives exceeded 120.
A final proof, of a rather different variety, comes from an August 5, 1997 New York Times article, whose headline reads: "Jeanne Calment, World's Elder, Dies at 122."
Here is an excerpt from the article:
Jeanne Calment, born a year before Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone and 14 years before Alexandre Gustave Eiffel built his tower, died today in a nursing home. At 122, she was the oldest person whose age had been verified by official documents.
The French, who celebrated her as the doyenne of humanity, had their own theories about why she lived so long, noting [among other things] that she used to eat more than two pounds of chocolate a week.
This is all very nice and good, but if we can live longer than 120, what could possibly be the meaning of the blessing, "to 120 years?" And how are we to understand the passuk in Bereishit?
Remarkably, a number of commentators, including a whole slew of midrashim, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, contend that the passuk does not mean that human life is limited to 120 years. Instead, it means that God gave that depraved generation 120 years to repent. In other words, the 120-year limit was not extended to individuals but to that particular society as a whole.
But there's another point to be made. The great fifteenth-century Spanish commentator Abravanel adds that the point is not 120 years per say but the larger effect of a limit to the human lifespan:
שבהיות הזמן קצר יזכור האדם יום מותו ויפחד ממנו וישוב אל ה' וירחמהו
For since time is brief, man will recall the day of his death, fear Him, and return to God, who will have mercy upon him.
The exact number of years, in other words, is not the critical point. It could have been 118 or 122. Instead, the verse is saying that since we are human and tend not to honestly confront our flaws, God gives us mortality to help us confront that reality. That was true for the generation of the flood, and that is true for us as individuals.
Which brings us to May 2001, when Dr. Leon Kass, who subsequently served as the chair of President Bush’s Bioethics Commission, wrote an article entitled: “L’chaim and its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” And here was his question. It might sound like science fiction, but scholars are increasingly working toward trying to find a cure for mortality itself. Imagine a world in which not all humans died. Lest you think this is the stuff of pure science fiction, he points to a fascinating example. In a startling recent discovery, fruit-fly geneticists have shown that mutations in a single gene produce a 50 percent increase in the natural lifetime of the flies. It seemed reasonable, therefore, even back in 2001 to raise this question.
Kass goes on to argue for the unpopular view that we should think twice before reaching for the alluring elixir of immortality:
To know and to feel that one goes around only once, and that the deadline is not out of sight, is for many people the necessary spur to the pursuit of something worthwhile... Mortality makes life matter.
Although we believe that life is good and long life is better, we hold something higher than life itself to be best. We violate one Shabbat so that the person whose life is saved may observe many Shabbatot. We are obliged to accept death rather than commit idolatry, murder, or sexual outrage. Though we love life and [say] L’Chaim, we have been taught of old to love wisdom and justice and godliness more.
This, I think, is the deeper meaning of the עד מאה ועשרים שנה blessing. It's certainly a prayer for longevity, but it’s also a prayer that we be acutely aware of our mortality and use that to drive us to account as best we can for every moment of our lives. To really take advantage of every moment; to be driven to squeeze out of life every possible moment that we can.
And as we are about to recite Yizkor, we are reminded that the true legacies of our loved ones lie with they did with the years with which they were blessed, and by all the ways in which they maximized the days of their lives.
There is a popular Chasidic rock group named 8th Day, with classics such as Yaalili. They have a really profound song called Just Like You. My daughter Moriah, in 2nd grade here at the Lab School, is just a bit obsessed with this song, and I'm sure would be happy to perform it on another occasion. The song is about someone who travels a far distance to see a wise man who apparently lives in near poverty. And the traveler is trying to understand why. Here are some of the lyrics:
I traveled halfway across the world to see a sage
I heard he lived like such a poor man in this day and age
I said, where’s your leather couches where’s your golden chandelier
Where’s your walk-in closet for all that stuff you could wear
Well [the sage responds] all you got is that suitcase my friend, ain’t that true
I said, yeah but you know that I’m just passing through
That’s when he said…
I’m just like you, I’m just passing through just like you
My heart wants to feel something that’s real
And my mind hopes to find treasures of another kind
And if you had my eyes you’d see a palace
For you and me.
We aren't an ascetic faith, and possessions are important - if used toward a higher end. But the song reminds us that we are all "just passing through." We pray today but longevity, but also that we live our lives seeking out "treasures of another kind."
In the spirit of a healthy, but profoundly meaningful and spiritually productive, year ahead, I wish everyone a LeChaim and, above all, עד מאה ועשרים שנה.