At the end of last week’s parsha and again at the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah introduces us to twenty people who lived extraordinarily long lives. Those mentioned in Parshas Breishis – including Noah - lived between 777 and 969 years with one exception – Chanoch who lived for 365 years. (The Rabbis explain why his lifespan was so much shorter than his ancestors and descendants.) The end of this week’s Parsha begins with the life of Shem who lived to be 600, followed by his son, grandson and great-grandson who lived 438, 433, and 464 years. The next six people – including Avraham – lived between 148 and 239 years. How did they live so long and how do we explain the progressively shorter lifespans?
The Rambam explains that human lifespan has always remained constant since the time of Adam. However, those twenty people and the others mentioned in the Book of Breishis who experienced extraordinary long life knew how to take care of themselves. They knew exactly what to eat, how much to sleep, etc. So, a person who lives a healthy lifestyle can live almost 1000 years.
The Ramban takes a different approach. He says that until the flood the normal lifespan was about 900 years. The Flood brought about a change of atmosphere into the world and the average lifespan was cut in half. So we have people living 438, 433 and 464 years. Shem lived longer – 600 years - because he was born before the flood and before global warming. That atmosphere gave him longer life than others after the flood.
About 300 years after the flood was the incident of the people rebelling against G-d. They built the Tower of Babel and G-d scattered them around the globe. The Ramban explains that there was another change in atmosphere then and the average lifespan was once again cut in half. So, now we find lives of between 148 and 239 years, Eventually, lifespans came down to about where they are now, with some minor fluctuations.
So, the Rambam and the Ramban advance their theories for old age in the beginning of the Chumash. However, we also find in the time of the Talmud several individuals who lived extraordinarily long lives. The Rambam himself mentions that Rabbi Dosa – who was a contemporary of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash - also saw Ezra who came to the Land of Israel about 450 years earlier. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai both lived until 120. Hillel lived a very long life. What was their secret for longevity?
Several times in the Talmud we find a question, “How did you live so long?” We never find the great rabbis answering, “I watched my cholesterol . . . I exercised 40 minutes a day . . . I ate few carbohydrates . . . I did not eat meat.” Those are all important.
However, for the Rabbis of the Talmud those were not the reasons. It was always some particular mitzva or way of life that he emphasized.
Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua responded that one reason he merited long life was that he never used a shul as a shortcut. Rabbi Preida said that he was always the first one in the Bais Midrash to study. Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakana answered that he never derived honor from the shame of another person and he always forgave people before he went to sleep for the night. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha suggested that he never looked at a wicked person. Rabbi Zeira said that he never walked in front of somebody who was greater than he; he never dozed in the Bais Midrash and he never rejoiced in another’s misfortune.
There is more to longevity than meets the eye. The Chafetz Chaim attributed his longevity to his public and personal efforts of the awareness of the sin of lashon hara. King David wrote in Tehillim, “Who wants to live long? Guard your tongue from speaking evil . . .”
Both the Rambam and Ramban would agree to the importance of physical health. But, the point we can take away from all this is that in addition to long lives, we should also aspire to live productive lives – lives that impact generations. We should strive for length of days – days that count - as well as length of years.