Parshat Vayelekh: Detuteronomy 31:1-30; Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27. (Shabbat Shuvah)
Ad me’ah v’esrim!” (“May you live until 120.”) We often hear and use this phrase when we are wishing someone a long life. At the very beginning of Vayelekh, Moses tells the nation that he is now 120 years old and soon to die.
Because Moses dies at the ripe old age of 120, that age is seen as the Jewish ideal length of life. Yet one of the questions we can reflect on, especially as we are a few days before Yom Kippur, is what we should be doing with our length of years.
There are two sources from our tradition that stand out on this subject. In the Talmud, the sage Rava teaches that at the end of life, each one of us is brought before the heavenly tribunal and asked to account for our actions in this world.
The very first question each of us is asked is, “Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?” It is fascinating that the first question asked is not about faith but about interpersonal actions. How did we treat other people in the often cutthroat world of business? For the Talmud, it is not enough to have the pious actions of Torah study or prayer if we treat others poorly.
The other source is a classic tale retold by Martin Buber of Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, among the early generations of Chasidim. Once Reb Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Reb Zusya, what’s the matter?” He shared a vision he had in a dream: “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.” Reb Zusya’s followers were puzzled. “Reb Zusya, you are pious, scholarly and humble. You have helped so many. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?” Reb Zusya replied: “I learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ or, ‘Why weren’t you like Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’” At this point, Reb Zusya sighed: “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’” Reb Zusya understood we each need to be the very best we can be.
Together these two sources allow us to reflect on the question: What do we do with our lives? We learn from Moses’ life in this week’s Torah portion that the ideal length of a Jewish life is 120 years. Yet how we choose to fill the years we are given is more important than the ultimate length of life we achieve.
In this new year, we should all live ad me’ah v’esrim, to 120 years; may those years be filled with goodness toward others and striving to be the best each of us can be. G’mar chatimah tovah! May we all be inscribed for good in this new year.
Rabbi Robert Gamer is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.