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Parshas Noach (5775)

Long Live Longevity!

As we read in last week`s Torah portion, those personages recorded in the Bible who lived before the great Flood seemed to have enjoyed exceptional longevity. Adam, the first human being in history, is said to have lived 930 years, while Methuselah, who lived the longest of all, was 969 years old (!) when he died (see Genesis 5:5 and 5:27). [In fact, the Seder Olam Rabbah teaches that Methuselah studied philosophy and religion under Adam for 243 years… and you thought 4 years of university was too much!]

There are different opinions among the various Bible commentators regarding the longevity of these Biblical figures. Rambam (“Maimonides”) writes in his Guide to the Perplexed (1:7) that only those people mentioned in the Torah actually lived so long. Everyone else alive then lived an ordinary life-span. These people were exceptions possibly due to their lifestyle, or because of a special miracle that G-d made for them.

Ralbag (“Gersonides”) writes that these longer life-spans were necessary to allow the ancients to learn and preserve for their descendants the wisdom that would serve as the foundation of future generations. For example, the ancients needed to make long-term astronomical observations, for which a normal seventy or eighty year life-span would not have sufficed.

Ramban (“Nachmanides”) is of the opinion that at the beginning of creation, it was man’s nature as a physically perfect human being in a physically perfect world to live a long life. After the Flood, however, the drastic climate change and the deterioration of the atmosphere caused a gradual shortening of life-spans until things leveled off to what it was like during the times of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and what the situation is like today – where most of us live seventy or eighty years and some of us live longer lives but nobody lives past 120-125.

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875 -1997) was a French supercentenarian who had the longest confirmed human lifespan on record, living to the ripe old age of 122 years! During all these years, Calment used to say that she "competed with Methuselah”. Calment ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to a diet rich in olive oil (which she also rubbed onto her skin), as well as a diet of port wine, and ate nearly one kilogram (2.2 lb) of chocolate every week. She also credited her calmness, saying, "That's why they call me Calment.” Calment reportedly remained mentally intact and had her wits about her until her very end. When asked by a magazine reporter on her 120th birthday what kind of future she saw for herself, she wryly replied, “a very short one”.

Vegetarians and vegans will be excited to read the words of Abarbanel (1437–1508), the great Jewish statesman, philosopher and Bible commentator, who writes in his commentary Mayenei HaYeshuah (5:3) on the Book of Daniel, that before the Flood, when Adam and his descendants were not permitted to eat meat (see Genesis 1:29), people lived to an average of nine hundred years. After meat was permitted to Noah when he emerged from the Ark (see Genesis 9:3), life expectancy dropped drastically.

Imagine living for almost a thousand years!! This means that you can have your mid-life crisis, quit your job, and buy a Mazda Miata convertible at 500 years of age!!

I can just see it now …Noah’s resting on the couch after a long, hard day standing in the hot sun building that Ark, when his mother comes home from work and says to him: “Look at you, Noah, you’re 600 years old and you’re still living at home. What’s the matter with you? You’ve been building that ‘ark-thing’ for almost 120 years now … when are you going to get a real job?”

The fact is that longevity didn’t turn out to be such a good idea after all. This can be seen from a verse at the end of Parshas Bereishis where G-d says (to Himself or to Noah): “My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning man since he is but flesh; his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3).

Several commentators interpret this verse to mean that G-d is telling Man that those days of longevity are ‘short-lived’, and that henceforth, the average human life-span constantly decreasing, will stabilize and will not exceed a hundred and twenty years. The Chizkuni explains that human beings with exceedingly long life-spans often live corrupt and immoral lives since they don’t live with a fear of imminent death. G-d therefore saw fit to drastically shorten their average life-spans.

So I guess we can say that it’s for our own spiritual benefit that we can no longer live till 930 like they did in the “good old days”.

Yet if you still wish you could live so long, don’t despair. For the Midrash HaGadol teaches that in the Messianic future, G-d will restore Man’s longevity once again, as in Isaiah’s prophecy (65:22): “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for as the days of a tree are the days of My people, and My chosen shall long enjoy their handiwork”.

As for me, I plan on living forever… so far, so good!

[Sources: Artscroll Bereishis Mesorah Publications; end quote by Steven Wright]

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