Bereshit 5780 – Jewish Wisdom for the 100-Year Life: Chai Society Shabbat

OCTOBER 25, 2019 – 7:45 PM

Parashat Bereshit, the opening passage in our annual cycle of Torah reading, introduces us to a number of characters whose apparent longevity strains credulity.  

In Genesis, chapter 5, we meet Enosh, who lives to 905 years.  Mahalalel, 895 years. Jared, 962 years. Methuselah, oldest man of the Hebrew Bible, 969 years.  We learn that Adam, long after having raised Cain and Abel, whose tragic story is the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare, went back to childrearing at the age of 130 years, named this third child Seth, lived another 800 years, and died at the age of 930.  Seth makes it to 912 years. And the chapter ends by introducing us to Noah, who didn’t even start having kids until he was 500 years old!

Rabbi Leo Abrami, who died last year at 86–an entirely respectable lifespan for a man of our times–summarized the literature on this subject:

“The ages attributed to the early human ancestors in Genesis,” he notes, 

are quite unlike those we are accustomed to in our modern world….  These extremely long life spans were explained in many ways. Josephus [the great first-century Roman-Jewish historian] writes that it may have been a function of their diet, or that God allowed them to live so long because they were close to the initial creation of man and were “beloved by God.”  Nachmanides [the RaMBaN, or Moses ben Nachman, who lived in 13th Century Spain] explains that since early man was more perfect biologically, people lived much longer…. Modern archeological discoveries provide a new way of approaching these long life spans…. [An ancient Sumerian] [c]uneiform document [that is almost 3,800 years old] enumerates the names of eight kings who reigned before the flood according to Sumerian saga, and their ages happen to be multiples of 3600… (Abrami, Leo Michel.  “The Ages of the Personalities in Genesis,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4.  October-December 2011). 

And, Professor Brian Abrahamson, an Australian Bible scholar, recently performed a factorial analysis of the ages of Biblical figures and concluded that several of them appear to be multiples of 19.  Methuselah’s 969 years correspond to 51 times 19. Noah lived 950 years, or 50 times 19. Seth lived 912 years, or 48 times 19. And Adam himself lived 930 years which is or 49 times 19… minus 1 (possibly, the professor conjectures, because Adam committed a major sin). This is, indeed, an amazing sequence of multiples of 19, which led Abrahamson to conclude that these numbers must have had a symbolic meaning in antiquity. 

I, for one, have a hard time visualizing my life past next Wednesday, let alone 900 some odd years from now.  Imagining life at 80 or 90 is difficult enough, although I have resigned myself to the possibility that, even then, people will still tell me that I look too young to be a rabbi.

And yet, recent studies indicate that each of us would be wise to contemplate both the opportunities and challenges afforded by increasing human longevity.  Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, co-authors of The 100-Year Life:  Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, note that whereas, 

For much of human history, life was well described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short,” … continued scientific, economic and social progress over the centuries has raised living standards and life expectancy.  While these benefits have not been spread equally across countries, or even within countries, in general, life is now less nasty, less brutish and certainly less short…. Over the last 200 years, best practice life expectancy has increased at a near constant rate of more than two years every decade.  If this trend continues, a child born in the UK [the authors’ home country] today has more than a 50% chance of living to 105. On average, most of these extra years of life will be healthy ones. It is as if the arc of life has been extended (Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, “Our life in three stages – school, work, retirement – will not survive much longer,” The Guardian (online edition), September 4, 2016).

The implications of this, the authors contend, are far-ranging and dramatic.  Most of us are accustomed to the idea of a three-stage life: an early phase of education, followed by a longer phase of work, and then retirement.  But this life-structure, which emerged as the norm across the industrialized world in the 20th century, is unlikely to survive the 21st.  

A redefinition of aging is already well underway:  how many times has someone recently reminded you that “60 is the new 40?”  Soon we may be hearing that 100 is the new 80!  

We’re already observing trends here in Scarsdale that bear out many of the authors’ hypotheses.  People are marrying and having children later. They are initiating mid-career breaks, taking time out to explore, build their own businesses, pursue new education at older stages of life.  They are negotiating greater flexibility in their jobs, sometimes going abroad, often with kids in tow, for months or even years at a time. We even have families in the congregation with grown, married children of their own, who much later in life, like Adam and Eve, have decided to have a second round of kids!   

Tonight, at our Chai Society Shabbat, when we honor members of WRT who have affiliated for eighteen years and more (not necessarily all of our oldest members, but certainly those of longest vintage), I’d like to outline three Jewish implications for a 100-year life:  first, in our approach to education, second, in our approach to work, and third, in our approach to spiritual vitality.  

Contemplating the effect of a 100-year life on one’s approach to education benefits from a wealth of Jewish wisdom.  Simply put, Judaism has never premised education as a project relegated to one phase of life, much less only the first phase of life, but rather frames learning as a lifelong pursuit.  

Those who have mastered the art of living have long internalized the wisdom of this approach.  Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 100-year-old master yoga teacher and Westchester resident recently commented:  “I haven’t finished learning. My students are my teachers.”

I know how she feels.  This past week in our Melton program–which itself attests to WRT’s commitment to lifelong Jewish learning–we studied a famous passage from a Talmud commentary called Avot de-Rabbi Natan, which probes the origins of Akiva, the great 2nd Century Rabbi.  

“How did Rabbi Akiva start out?” the Rabbis asked.  They said: “He was forty years old and had never studied anything.  Once, while standing in front of a well, Akiva asked, ‘Who engraved this stone?’  They answered, ‘[It was] the water, which drips upon it every day. Akiva, are you not familiar [with the verse from the Book of Job, 14:19]: “As the waters wear away the stones?”’  Right then and there, Rabbi Akiva made the following deduction: ‘If something soft [as water] can chisel its way through something hard [as stone], then surely the words of Torah, which are hard as iron, can penetrate my heart, which is but flesh and blood!’”  At that moment, Akiva signed up for Hebrew school, as it were, learning his Alef-Bet at the age of 40 and going on to become the most learned Sage of his generation (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Ver. A, Ch. 6).  

 Starting in mid-life, learning gradually:  Akiva models not only the what but the how of Jewish learning.  And, also, the why:  so that, little by little, the words of Torah might penetrate the heart and transform our lives from the inside out.  

Of course this flies in the face of how many Jewish communities actually function.  Jewish education imitates the pattern of secular education: something parents give their kids to occupy them for while, and then stop.  If commitment to Jewish learning in a family happens to be strong, the child may continue past Bar or Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation and on through High School graduation.  But even students on college campuses with robust Jewish populations and active Hillel chapters have little motivation, much less opportunity, to pursue serious Jewish learning.  And then the cycle tends to repeat itself, with adults re-engaging with the question of Jewish education only after they have children of their own.

A 100-year life forces a comprehensive reckoning with our relationship with education, with similar implications for Jewish education.  “How can you maintain and build productive assets,” ask Scott and Lytton, “when most education takes place in your 20s? How can what you have learned remain relevant over the next 60 years against a backdrop of technological upheaval and industrial transformation?”  

Analogous questions might be asked of our Jewish education:  How can we ever hope to develop a meaningful spiritual life with a 7th-grade understanding of God, Prayer, or Belief?  How can we expect what we learned in religious school as children to remain relevant for the rest of our lives? Only an Akiva-like approach to Jewish learning might address these concerns.

The authors of The 100-Year Life also predict the upheaval that longevity will prompt in our work.  “Consider this: people who live to 100 will have around 100,000 extra productive hours than those who live to 70.  Unless we can find the motivation and the means to save more,” they conclude, “an inevitable consequence is that we will have to work longer.” 

The AARP already reports that men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but well into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond, now comprise “the hottest demographic in the labor market,” and the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.  

People currently in their 20s can expect to work into their late 70s or even early 80s, and people in their mid-40s (like this rabbi) should plan to work into their mid-70s.  As Scott and Lytton argue: “We need to create a world where this is feasible and beneficial, a way that makes a longer life a blessing and not a curse.”

Judaism, predictably, has a lot to say about this too.  Obviously our Biblical and Talmudic sources could not have anticipated the norms of 21st century life, such as the emergence of a multi-stage career, a work trajectory that includes multiple, meaningful professional engagements spread out over much time, with ample investment in time outside the office as well, for creative pursuits, family, travel, and the education to develop new proficiencies and pursue new professional opportunities.  

This is not to say that Judaism is silent on the subject of a productive and meaningful work life.  Far from it! Perhaps the most meaningful Jewish notion pertaining to our relationship with labor that emerges from the traditional literature is, of course, the Shabbat, and its less well-known but equally important relative, the Sabbatical.  

Many have argued that the Sabbath is the single greatest contribution of the Jewish tradition to human civilization.  The notion is deceptively simple to understand and deceptively tricky to implement in the modern world: Six days on, one day off.  That’s it. That’s Judaism’s brilliant innovation. Six days on, one day off. The thing is, right now, in America, particularly in this not-so-sleepy suburb populated with a surplus of high-powered executives, the notion of Shabbat, of six days on, one day off, is downright counter-cultural, in the very best way.  

Let’s just name it:  many of us are overworked.  Between our responsibilities to our jobs, and our unpaid jobs as members of families and volunteer leaders in our communities, we seem to be obeying a traffic light that displays only green.  We need Shabbat. We need a break. Regularly. Weekly. We need to stop. Think. Pray. Celebrate. Learn. Eat a meal together. Rest. Take a walk in the fall foliage. Light a havdalah candle.  Breathe.

And if Shabbat is countercultural, the idea of a Sabbatical is downright transgressive, which must be why it hasn’t much caught on outside the realms of academia and the clergy, which is a shame.  Congregations who seek a long-term investment in their clergy would be wise to view sabbatical as an investment in the long-term vitality of their spiritual leaders and the sustained vibrancy of the congregation.  Sabbatical not only invites professionals to rejuvenate; it also prompts them to pursue creative opportunities, deepen their learning, and develop new skills that can benefit every member of an organization. Imagine the advances in science, medicine, industry, business, and the legal and financial professions if companies and professionals invested in regular Sabbaticals for their top executives.  

The multi-phase career occasioned by a 100-year life begs for a renewed attention to Shabbat and Sabbatical, ancient Jewish ideas with profound wisdom for a modern world.     

Finally, let us consider the question of our spiritual vitality as we live longer and healthier lives.  An extended lifespan comprised of all work and no play, all work and no learning, all work and no extracurricular pursuits, may solve the financial challenge of longevity; but it will inevitability deplete other important life-assets:  chiefly, our emotional health, our friendships and relationships, and, above all, our spiritual wellbeing.  

In response to this dilemma I cannot prescribe a simple Jewish remedy like lifelong learning or Shabbat and Sabbatical, although I believe that attentiveness to these will contribute dramatically to enhanced spiritual vitality over the long haul.  

What I can tell you is that while Judaism may not add years to our life, it can most certainly add life to our years.  

Several years ago, a family moved up their recently widowed mom to Westchester and introduced her to WRT.  Within weeks she was a regular at Shabbat services. In a few months time, Torah Study had, effectively, adopted her, and you could find her here every Saturday morning.  New friendships blossomed out of her bereavement. Soon she was leading book groups and participating in every WRJ program, and so much more. Out of the shadow of her bereavement emerged the sunlight of a renewed spirit.  She proudly called WRT her second home for the last almost 15 years of her life, until her own death a little over a year ago. And her story is not atypical. Whenever I see a person with many years in the rearview mirror find spiritual rejuvenation through his or her Jewish connection, I think of how wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald was, when he declared “There are no second acts in American lives.”  Judaism proposes that it’s never too late for a second act, and a third, and perhaps even more, should God bless us with years and health enough to keep writing the story of our days.

As I look out into the congregation tonight, I acknowledge with admiration how many of you took to heart our invitation to #showupforshabbat, in remembrance of the victims of the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, one year ago this weekend.  I admire your commitment to honor the slain, and to stand together against antisemitism and hate and intolerance. But to #showupforshabbat on a significant yahrzeit such as tonight is not a great sacrifice.  To #showupforshabbat week after week, and for profound Jewish learning at every age and stage of life; to show up for the baby namings and aufrufs and funerals and shivas of members of our community; to show up for the volunteer dinners and holiday parties for guests with visual impairments or developmental disabilities; to show up for the needy, poor, and hungry with helping hands and generosity of spirit; to show up for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide–these are, indeed, commitments worth honoring.  

And for those of you who have been showing up for 18 years, and 36 years, and 54 years, and more–we all find inspiration in your example and gratitude for the strength and vitality that you have given WRT for so many years.  

May our congregation, a very youthful 66 years strong, be blessed to know the longevity of our ancestors, and write many fruitful chapters to come in the Book of Life of Westchester Reform Temple.  Amen.

 

 

 

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