Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Last week, our community lost two of its illustrious elder statesmen. On Thursday, we mourned the loss of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, who passed away at age 95. On Friday, we mourned the loss of Rabbi Dr. David Eliach, who passed away at age 99!
While radically different in fields of expertise and personality, these two iconic figures shared a special blessing from Hashem. They were active, intellectually and even professionally, until the very end of their lives.
As we end the Torah cycle and begin anew, this theme resonates in Chumash and classical meforshim, an area in which both of the late nonagenarian scholars excelled. On Simchas Torah we read "U'k'yamecha dav'echa" - "Like the days of your prime, so may your old age be" (Devarim 33:25). Rashi teaches that this bracha was given to all of Klal Yisrael, not just one shevet. "For you, the days of your old age, which typically ooze away and founder, will be good like the days of your youth."
The story of the mabul, the focus of Parshas Noach, in fact begins at the end of Parshas Breishis. Hashem reacted to the immorality of the generation (Rashi 6:2) by saying (6:3), "My spirit will not contend forever concerning man" - about whether to destroy man or not (Rashi). "His days will be 120 years" - after which if they do not repent, I will bring a flood upon them (Rashi).
The blessing of "may you live until 120" cannot be based on this passuk according Rashi. It presumably is based on Moshe's longevity (Devarim 34:7), which showed no signs of old age (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam). Perhaps that is why we do not pray to attain the greater longevity of the patriarchs (175,180,and 147 years), since they exhibited (in Avraham's case initiated, Bava Metzia 87a) signs of old age, including blindness (Breishis 27:1,48:10).
However, the Rosh (6:3) reads that passuk as a source for the life of 120 years. "My spirit" refers to the Heavenly soul of man. No longer will the soul be within the body for a very long time, the 900-year antediluvian lifespan. Why? Because they are "basar" - decadent. Their longevity caused their souls to be perverted, to follow their base sensual desires into old age, instead of angelic lives of knowledge, for which they were created. Therefore, their lifespan will last only 120 years.
While the decline was gradual and, according to the Ramban (5:4), affected by the flood and the dispersion, the Rosh attributes this shortened lifespan to man's sinful abuse of his longevity. Thus, our prayer "until 120" is, in fact, based on this passuk, and connotes a refined, spiritual life, as well as a healthy one.
"Al tashlicheini le'es zikna" - "Do not cast me off in old age" (Tehillim 71:9). This phrase, repeated so often, and at times with great feeling, during the Yamim Noraim, has many interpretations. All of them seem to contend with the obvious question: don't we want to live to an old age?
The simple answer is reflected in the end of the passuk "When my strength fails, do not forsake me." We want good lives in old age, notwithstanding the inevitable physical weakening. Do not leave me to infirmity. This parallels the earlier passuk (51:13), juxtaposed during selichos, "Do not throw me from Your Presence. Do not take Your Holy Spirit from me." This is the spiritual and mental equivalent which precedes 71:19 both in Tehillim and in our liturgy. In context, it is a prayer for full intellectual and spiritual capacity in old age. Do not punish me with dementia.
The Ba'al Shem Tov (cited by his grandson, Degel Machaneh Efraim, Devarim 7:12) interprets the passuk to mean "Don't throw me into an old age mentality" (l'eis zikna). Just as one weakens physically, so, too, spiritually, something old is not enjoyable. If it is not "new," it does not have great life (chiyus). We pray to always feel newly refreshed in serving Hashem.
Rav Yitzel of Peterburg (cited in Yated Ne'eman, Musaf L'shabbos Ki Savo 5755, p. 6) related a story of Czar Nicholai's army. Conditions were so brutal that many would hide to avoid conscription. If caught, they were sent to Siberia for many years. Once, the Czar declared an amnesty, a forgiveness for past draft-dodging. Tens of thousands of Russians, young and old, reported to the draft office. The young were conscripted, and the old were sent to court. They complained to the judge, who responded: The youngsters are forgiven by serving in the army. But you are too old to serve and must stand judgment. We pray, do not throw us away in old age. Allow us to repay You for our shortcomings by serving You with our remaining strength. Do no forsake us.
Notwithstanding the recent COVID decline, the average lifespan has risen dramatically in recent years. Governments are worried about financial implications as the ratio of workers to retirees changes. For us, retirement is dangerous. "A man does not die except from batala" (Avos D'Rebbi Nasan 11:1). Lack of activity can shorten life, as recent studies have shown. A Torah Jew who retires, willingly or forcibly, must remain active. For graduates of yeshivos, this is best accomplished by extensive Torah study. Many communities have kollelim for retirees, where old, and not so old, men learn with youthful vigor and passion. This contributes significantly to al tashlicheinu, both physically and spiritually. For others, men and women, chessed activity achieves the same goals.
Every Shabbos, evening and morning, we describe a tzaddik who flourishes in Hashem's Presence: "They will still be fruitful in old age, they will be vigorous and fresh" (Tehillim 92:14). May all of us be blessed with longevity, healthy in our minds, spirits and bodies, until 120, ad me'ah ve'esrim shanah.