April 18, 2024
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The Pros and Cons of Longevity

Every year around Chanukah time I call or visit my friend Joe Wolf to wish him a happy birthday. This year he turned 102 years old. He was still sharp as ever and wished me a long and healthy life, as he had enjoyed himself. Down South in Florida we have a neighbor, Gertrude, who will be turning 100 years old in February. Whenever I run into her we have long and meaningful conversations. She is still as sharp as ever too. However, she laments that most of her family and friends are gone. She sometimes feels lonely as a result. This started me thinking about longevity. We all wish for a long, healthy, quality life. However, how long is long enough?

If we look carefully at the chronicles of the generations before the Flood and after, we notice a very sharp drop in human longevity. Before the Flood, the average life span seems to have been well into the hundreds of years, and the quality of life was excellent. Methuselah had the longest recorded life span, living to 969 years. After the Flood, however, life expectancy declined, and by Abraham’s time, it seems to have been about one hundred years. Pirkei Avot (5:25) tells us that the average life span that can now be expected is about 70 years. If we are extra strong we might make it to 80 years.

The Torah promises longevity for only two specific mitzvot: honoring one’s parents and “shiluach hakan,” sending away the mother bird before taking away her eggs.

In Parshat Vayigash we read how Yaakov was introduced to Pharaoh. When Pharaoh first sees Yaakov he is amazed to see someone who looks so old. (Yaakov was about 130 years old.) He asks him his age but uses an interesting choice of words. He says, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the phrase as follows: Pharaoh understood that although people may live to an old age, they may only make productive use of few of their days, since people often fall short of their potential. When Pharaoh sees Yaakov he is actually asking him, how many truly meaningful days have you lived during your long life.

Yaakov gives an interesting response. He states that he had a hard and bitter life, not having experienced the quality of life that his forefathers had experienced. “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life.” He explained that his forefathers lived under more cheerful conditions and accomplished more during their days.

Incidentally, the rabbis state that Yaakov was punished for responding in such a cynical manner. Even though he had lived through many challenging times, one must appreciate simply being alive. Every day alive is a blessing. As a result of his complaining, a year of life was deducted from his expected life span for every word he used when complaining.

We have all heard the story of Rip Van Winkle, first published in 1819. He drank some liquor and fell asleep for 20 years. He awoke to a world he did not recognize. Actually, we Jews had that story first. The Talmud in Taanit (23a) recounts the story of Choni the circle drawer. Choni had a heavy meal and fell asleep for 70 years. When he awoke he found out that his children were no longer alive. He went to see his surviving grandchildren and the progeny of his scholarly colleagues. No one believed that he was who he claimed to be. He became deeply depressed and prayed to die. The Gemara related, “and so he died.”

Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted as saying, “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”

As we live our own lives, we are challenged by the lesson of the short interchange between Pharaoh and Yaakov. We need to ask ourselves the same question: “How many are the days of the years of our lives?” Hopefully, they will be many and meaningful.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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