What to Do to Live Happily Ever After

What to Do to Live Happily Ever After

Thoughts on Parashat Noah

Menachem Mirski 

The fear of the LORD prolongs life, While the years of the wicked will be shortened.

Proverbs 10:27

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)

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Too Big, It Must Fail

Too Big, It Must Fail

Toughts on Parashat Noah

This week’s parasha contains two great narratives that are at the foundations of the Judeo-Christian civilization and have inspired people for centuries: the story of Noah and the flood as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. The beginning of the story of Noah tells us about the great corruption that permeated the earth. To quote the Torah:

God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (Gen 6:12)

The Hebrew word nishkhata (from the root shakhat), translated as corrupted, bears also other synonymous meanings like: to be marred, be spoiled, be injured, be ruined or to be rotted. The previous verse:

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Gen 6:11)

uses the Hebrew word hamas which also means violence, cruelty, injustice. According to this narrative, the only remedy for this terrible state of affairs on earth was to clean up this ‘horrible uncleanness’ with the greatest water the planet earth had ever seen.

Thus we have corruption and renewal of life, a brutal renewal. Humanity has been decimated, no wonder then that in another story, in the same parasha we read that:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. (Gen 11:1)

The Hebrew word sapha (language) has also other meanings such as: rim, border, binding and they are actually primary, not secondary meanings of this word.1

Given that, we can rightly assume that after this great purgatory event not only languages but also human beliefs, value systems did not manage to diversify yet. It provides us with a slightly different (and deeper, in my opinion) perspective on the story known to us as “about the confusion of languages” in which the aspect of simple, everyday and practical communication goes to the background.

According to this reading of the story, this joint human venture was not accomplished not only because humanity lost a common language, but rather, a common ground: common values and goals, which diversified during the construction of the Tower of Babel. This venture also does not have to be understood in a negative way. According to rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz, who lived in 18th-century Prague (and was considered ‘a heretic rabbi’, because of promoting universal brotherhood and gender equality) the goal of the venture was to reach the moon. In his work Tifferet Yehonatan, Rabbi Eibeschuetz writes:

“… their reasoning was wholly scientific: All rain is the effect of gases and vapors, the watery element, rising from the earth. Thus are clouds formed; thus does water rain down. From heaven itself no water can fall. They calculated from observation that the clouds, which are the thick vapors that rise from the earth, go no higher than five miles at the very most. It necessarily follows that the more delicate vapors composed of water particles can go no higher than this. If they did, the thicker clouds would also be found at the higher altitudes. Hence their plan was to build a tower higher than those clouds, a place where rain could never again fall upon them.”

And thus no more Floods. No more need to behave themselves. According to rabbi Eibeschuetz, people of that generation also saw the moon as a sphere no less inhabitable than the terrestrial globe. They believed that they could reach and inhabit the moon by building a ship that could “float in the air” lifted up with a huge sail because it seemed to them that ultimately all the winds ascend from the earth in an upward direction.

But their plan, of course, failed. They lost their ‘common language’ in the deeper meaning of this word, as I suggested above. This is a problem that humanity has never stopped struggling with and this seems to be particularly evident to us today. Our western societies are torn apart ideologically. They are tormented by the incoherence and incompatibility of professed value systems and visions of the world.

What is important, the lines of all these divisions do not run along national, cultural or religious borders, but basically divide all of these groups. Therefore, multiculturalism is possible to be permanent, but it must be built on common foundations, namely values professed by all the peoples.

Do such common values exist? Yes of course. The belief that they don’t is due to the excessive ideologization of our lives. When we focus on practice, it turns out that it is not difficult to find them. These values, which I think we would all agree, include respect for others, being honest, responsible, grateful, understanding, compassionate, loving. These are the first that come to my mind, I believe that this list is much longer.

It is worth to reject gigantism, utopias, maximalism and all systemic visions of “salvation of the world that will come if only the rest of humanity will listen to us and do as we believe is right,” because we are either the smartest of all people and have remedies for all problems, or a mandate from God Himself, whose envoys on earth we are. This approach is doomed to failure, because we will never gain everyone’s support for our visions. Even if anyone ever succeeds in it, it won’t be permanent. By believing in similar utopias, we condemn ourselves to eternal frustration and overlook a lot of everyday life. Everything good that humanity has achieved so far has its source in mutual understanding and cooperation starting from the most basic level – the level of everyday, practical life. And the fact that we are where we are and we do not believe that we can fly to the moon by the ship with a big sail proves that our mutual cooperation has been pretty good so far, despite the eternal, ideological differences between us.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

According to the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of The Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and The Midrashic Literature.