Remember Harry Chapin, that great and sad musician whose life was cut short? He wrote a beautiful, melancholy song, "The Story of a Life" where a young man, presumably himself, starts his days conjuring images of all the dreams he will one day fulfill: "Great tales of love and strife, and somewhere on your path to glory, you will write your story of a life." No surprise, in the song he reaches mid-life and his dreams crumble and the story that he writes is suburban and small, not at all descriptive of the real life of Harry Chapin. The story of a life should be told not in years but in mystery and majesty: "Where's the magic story of a life?"
I thought of this song given the recent coalescence of a piece of Talmud in the daily cycle with the death of former mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry. The Talmud debates the meaning of the biblical verse: "I will fulfill the number of your days..." [BT Yevamot 50a]. The Sages of the Talmud were puzzled by this expression from Exodus. Does it mean that God pre-ordains the number of days of each human life, in which case we could never "earn" additional days or lose them based on our behavior? This would seem to contradict other biblical verses that indicate that we can extend our days through our goodness and selflessness. One Sage argues: "If he is deserving, God completes his allotted lifespan. If he is not deserving, God reduces his lifespan." In other words, our lifespan is predetermined; if we use our days well, we get to live it to the very end and if we don't then years are cut off. This approach punishes those who are not deserving, but does not reward those who are genuinely worthy.
Some Sages did not love this answer for that reason and offered, instead, a baseline approach. God determines the lifespan for each person and if found unworthy, years are taken away but if he or she is particularly exemplary, then years are added. It seems only fair in this math equation that there is addition as well as subtraction. Other commentaries on the Talmud state that this verse applies to generations instead of individuals.
Marion Barry died this week at the age of 78. He was DCs mayor for four colorful terms, colorful being perhaps the nicest way to say it. He had been charged with sexual assault, arrested for drug use and did jail time - and was then re-elected on the slogan "I may not be perfect, but I am perfect for DC." A whole book on leadership could be written on this slogan alone. He was literally a case study in intemperance in Barbara Kellerman's Bad Leadership while he was still alive. Barry had Chapin's magic story of a life nailed; obituaries of him read like a work of fiction. But his contributions are likely not what the Talmud had in mind when it asked us to earn our years.
One commentator on the Exodus life calculus interprets the verse to mean that each day offers the opportunity for us to fulfill our unique goals. If we fail to fulfill them, we will be accountable. If we use each day well, we will deserve additional days in order to complete the lofty goals we have, as if each individual lifespan adjusts to accommodate what we want to squeeze out of it. This need not be taken literally. It offers us the challenge of fulfilling our daily potential, understanding that each day is another opportunity to add an exceptional page to the story of our lives.
If every day could be an entire chapter in the story of a life, then how exciting is your autobiography? Toss this conversation starter around with the turkey at your table this Thanksgiving: describe a great ordinary day of your life.
So where's the magic story of your life?