“He [Moses] said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:2)2
On the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana, I mentioned a verse from this week’s portion, that Moses lived 120 years. Here is part of that sermon:
Sidney was called into court to testify. The attorney asked him his age. “84 until 120,” he answered.” “Please just answer the question, how old are you? “84 until 120.” The judge jumped in. “Sir, please give us a simple answer. How old are you?” “84 until 120.” Finally, the opposing attorney stepped forward. “Perhaps I can help. Until 120, how old are you? “84,” answered Sidney.
Biz hundert un tsvantsig. Ad meah v’esrim. Until 120. Jewish tradition teaches that we should live 120 years. That is how long Moses lived. In all of my years doing funerals, I have never buried anyone who made it to 120. I have performed a few funerals for people who came close to 110. Last year I buried a woman who lived till 109. The amazing thing is that, until near the end, I used to run into her at a kosher restaurant at Sunrise. Her caretaker did not drive her to the restaurant. She walked. Until 106 she walked to that restaurant.
The number 120 comes from the Torah. God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and plants an angel to keep them out. They had already eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. They should not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. They should not become as gods. “God said, “My breath shall not abide in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). That is the Jewish dream, 120 years.
Perhaps a more realistic number is found in the book of Psalms. “The days of our years are seventy, if given the strength eighty” (Psalms 90:10). Thank God I have been given the strength, because I have passed seventy. With God’s help, I plan to pass eighty. But I know that no one is given forever. Our bodies, like everything else in the universe, are subject to the laws of entropy. All things break down eventually. The universe itself will eventually burn out. Or as William Butler Yeats wrote in his wonderful poem, The Second Coming, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.”
I realized this recently when going out to dinner with friends. In my college days, when I was young, going out with friends, we talked about dating, careers, and the philosophy of life. When I was married and raising a family, we talked about kids, sports, and politics. Recently, when going out, we talked about doctors, hospitals, and medical issues. It suddenly dawned on me. I have become my parents.
Judaism has always respected the wisdom of age. The Torah teaches, “Rise up before the hoary head” (Leviticus 19:32). Nonetheless, Judaism also recognizes the pain of aging. One of the most poignant prayers in Judaism is repeated over and over on Yom Kippur, whenever we open the ark for Sh’ma Kolenu. “Do not cast us aside in our old age, as we lose our strength do not abandon us.” As the cliché goes, growing old is not for sissies. So why did God make a world this way? Why could we not live forever? I think of the words of Woody Allen, “I do not want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”
I want to share some thoughts from my book The Ten Journeys of Life. The last of the journeys in the book is mortality, a journey we each must take. In the book, I asked why not live forever? I gave an example. Imagine having a teenage son and telling him to clean up his room. He can do it whenever he gets around to it. Will he ever clean up that room? Of course not. Now imagine telling that teenage son, if you want to go out this weekend, your room better be cleaned up by Friday. Now there is a time limit. And nothing focuses the mind like a time limit. When you only have so much time, when you have a deadline, you get things done.
Life gives us a deadline. We have things we need to accomplish in life. And we are given a time limit. God puts us in the world with a job to do, a mission to complete. And God gives us a time limit. Growing older, having our body not work as it used to, is a sign that we need to become focused. We need to make sure the job is complete.