Throughout the book of Deuteronomy - the biblical book in which we are currently immersed - we find mitzvot framed as ways to lengthen our lives or the quality of our lives. It reminds me of an old TV ad for yogurt featuring seniors with the wrinkled face of walnuts all eating yogurt as the secret to longevity. Health scams often attract people with the promises of youthful aging or stopping the clock - a skin cream that is the elixir of life, a vitamin or an exercise that is the key to getting older and getting better.
The Talmud sage Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKana [not to be confused with Hakuna Matata] was once asked the question above by his disciples. They rightfully wanted to know from their master teacher what he did to live to such a ripe old age. This begins a larger Talmudic discussion where the sages spill their longevity secrets. Free of cost, I will be sharing many of them with you. Combine them with yogurt eating and you just may live forever!
Rabbi Nehunya: "In all my days, I never attained veneration at the expense of someone's degradation. Nor did my fellow's curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was always openhanded with money." When asked later, by others, he added: "In all my days I never accepted gifts. Nor was I ever inflexible by exacting a measure of retribution against those who wronged me. And I was always openhanded with my money." This rabbi was able to live with an inner security that came from giving: giving people goodwill, granting them forgiveness, and sharing his material wealth (a fact he stresses twice when asked).
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha: "In all my days I never gazed at the likeness of a wicked man." This rabbi achieved old age by surrounding himself with good people who generated positive influences that kept him young at heart and in mind.
Rabbi Zeira: "In all my days I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was a greater Torah scholar than me. Nor did I ever walk four cubits without words of Torah nor without wearing tefillin. Nor did I ever sleep in a study hall, neither a deep sleep nor a brief nap. Nor did I ever rejoice when my fellow stumbled. Nor did I ever call my fellow by a derogatory nickname." This rabbi lived a long time because he abided in humility and sensitivity to others. He was also able to make the most of a meaningful moment by staying fully awake in his own life.
What fascinates me, in addition to the answers, is the sheer premise made by these ancient rabbis more than two thousand years ago. They believed that with great reflection and wisdom, they could hazard a guess about their longevity. Instead of berating themselves for all that they did wrong in the past and might repeat in the future, they were able to look back with pride at the lives of virtue that they crafted. They could identify behaviors and tendencies that made the quality of life deep and worthwhile.
You don't have to be old to do that. You do have to take some time to ask why God blessed you with the very particular life you lead. You do have to believe that you were created in the divine image at this specific point in time and history to make certain contributions. In what merit are you here right now? What have you done to deserve this life, in the most positive sense?
This Shabbat - as we begin to cap the summer and welcome the High Holidays - perhaps we can each take some time to reflect as individuals and as families about our larger question of purpose the way that the sages did and to pat ourselves on the back for the good that we do.
What acts of virtue or acts of restraint have you done to receive the gift of life today?