What to Do to Live Happily Ever After
Thoughts on Parashat Noah
The fear of the LORD prolongs life, While the years of the wicked will be shortened.
Immortality is an eternal human longing and its motif is interlaced throughout all religions and cultures of the world, including secular culture. We see this theme everywhere. Literature, art and film all adopt variants in different epochs to illustrate the fascination with immortality. The Renaissance concept of obtaining eternal life is through one’s own artistic or intellectual works and the modern idea of extending human life is by using discoveries of science and medicine. The dream of immortality expressed in the contemporary era, as longevity, seems to be an inseparable extension of the human survival instinct and, at the same time, an expression of the boundless affirmation of life, an enthusiastic “YES” to human existence.
According to Bereshit / Genesis and its story of creation, immortality, or at least longevity, was the original state of human existence, although this idea is not expressed explicitly in the Bible. All we know is that Adam and Eve were punished with death, or mortality, for their first sin – eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and from this fact we can infer that their previous state of existence was somewhat different. However, despite this punishment the biblical Adam enjoyed his life for 930 years (Genesis 5:5) and this was the typical life expectancy of all Adam’s descendants (and presumably all other living people) until Noah, who according to the Bible lived 950 years.
In the Torah portion for this week, we find the genealogy of Noah’s descendants, from Noah’s son, Shem, to Terah, Abram’s father. After which the lives of each succeeding generation are shorter: Shem lived 600 years, his grandson Shelach 433 years, Shelach’s grandson, Peleg, lived 239 years, and the last descendant mentioned here, Terah who lived 205 years. All of this was decreed by God before the flood (Bereshit/Genesis 6:3.) It was, according to my interpretation of these biblical passages, a punishment for human wickedness and proclivity toward wrongdoing that was happening in spite of being endowed with divine qualities… and a warning directly from God! (Genesis 6:1-6).
The traditional explanation of long lifespans is “lots to do and not enough people to do it.” There were not many people in the world and every person certainly arrived with a set of missions to fulfill. Therefore, at that time, people had large “all-encompassing” souls and therefore longer life spans in order to do the work assigned. In later generations, these big souls were spread out among thousands and millions of individuals, in the form of smaller souls with less work to do, and thus, shorter lifetimes in which to accomplish this work.
However, I believe we need not understand these passages literally and we need not believe that all these people lived 200-900 years. Here the Bible isn’t speaking to us in the language of facts. This content is probably aimed to motivate people to act morally. What is important here is the message: our lifespan is dependent on our moral conduct.
This idea is expressed numerous times in the Bible:
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God gives thee. (Exodus 20:12)
We have an inversion of this commandment in the Book of Proverbs:
He who curses his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in utter darkness. (Proverbs 20:20)
In addition to the proverb quoted at the outset, another proverb expressing similar idea:
The beginning of wisdom is fear of the LORD, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through me your days will increase, And years be added to your life. (Proverbs 9:10-11)
We also have a little naughty version of this wisdom in the Book of Kohelet:
Do not be overly wicked, and do not make yourself a fool. Why die when it is not your time? (Kohelet 7:17)
But we don’t have to delve deeply into the Bible in order to find more passages with a similar message. It’s enough to open our sidurim and recite the 2nd paragraph of our everyday prayer – Shema ve’Ahavta, where it states that all the commandments were given to you:
…That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)
In fact, the entire system of the Torah commandments serves not only a good and moral life, but also a life with meaning and in which every human action has meaning. All of this deepens the substance of our life and it provides a source of motivation to live and to fight the obstacles we encounter. But, that’s not all: while we are at it, the Torah also teaches us to live in moderation. Because moderation can also extend our lives simply because lack of moderation can shorten it.
The commandments also teach us to live carefully and prudently. They teach us to think before each action and to anticipate its effects. For example, by avoiding unnecessary risks and being careful not to make negatively emotional, ill-considered or hasty decisions we inevitably make decisions that are smart and considered, leading to a longer life.
Therefore, by fulfilling the laws of the Torah together – living mindfully, pragmatically and with love towards others – we can together say an enthusiastic “YES” to human existence and fulfil the vision of the prophet:
No more shall there be an infant or graybeard Who does not live out his days. He who dies at a hundred years Shall be reckoned a youth, And he who fails to reach a hundred Shall be reckoned accursed. (Isaiah 65:20)