In many communities it is customary to wish one another ‘long life’ after a funeral or in a house of mourning. In the simple sense it is a wish for longevity, in the deeper sense it means that our lives should be long–filled with achievements that outlast our lifetimes.
This brings us to the exceptionally long life lived by the early biblical characters. Adam lived 930 years. Methuselah lived 697 years. Noah lived 950 years. Why did they live so long?
The first and obvious answer is that the generations closest to G-d’s handiwork had a stronger grip on life. G-d is timeless, thus, Adam, who was created by G-d, had a lasting grip on life. This also impacted those who came after him. With time, however, the human lifespan began to shorten.
The second reason was their lifestyle. Let’s remember that the biblical figures in the early generations did not eat meat or drink wine. It was only after Noah emerged from the ark that G-d permitted Noah to eat meat. Similarly, Noah was the first to drink wine and to drink it to excess. Healthy eating habits contribute to long life.
In addition, the early humans lived orderly disciplined lives. They rarely had children before a hundred years of age, which implies that they weren’t unbridled, frivolous, or promiscuous. They were structured and valued in the way they lived, which also contributes to long life.
In addition, the primordial atmosphere was purer than it is today. G-d created a pristine world, but life is messy. Humans produce trash, fumes, and toxins. As time went on, the atmosphere became less pristine and therefore less conducive to long life. Add to this the phenomenon of the flood in Noah’s day, which washed away three handbreadths of the earth’s topsoil. One can easily imagine the deterioration in the quality of fruits and vegetables, which would have further reduced their longevity.
What and Why
These scientific reasons explain what reduced the human lifespan, but they fail to explain why. Fundamental to Judaism is the belief that everything happens for a reason. If the human lifespan began to diminish after a thousand years, there must have been a reason.
One of the reasons for the long life span in the early years was to enable humans to learn the secrets of life. Everything we know today is built on earlier knowledge. But imagine starting out fresh without a shred of knowledge about the universe. Imagine needing to learn about seasons, the whether, and the elements. Imagine needing to learn navigation, sailing, construction, astronomy, and biology. Imagine needing to learn which vegetables are healthy and which are poisonous, which herbs heal which ills.
All this is learned by trial and error and the early humans needed time to learn from their mistakes. Had they lived seven or eight decades they wouldn’t have enough time to discover all that humans needed to know. Thus they lived a long life in both senses of the word. They lived for nearly a thousand years and the impact of their works outlasted their lifetimes.
But once the collective bank of human knowledge reached critical mass, it was no longer necessary for scholars to live so long. It became possible for generations to build on the accomplishments of their forebearers, which is why (rather than how) the lifespan began to tail off.
The lesson we learn is that what we achieve today has long term ramifications. The single discovery of relativity changed our understanding of the universe forever. The single discovery of the light bulb changed the world for generations. The single development of the Iphone transformed the world forever.
This is obvious about some things, but it is subtly true for all things. For better of for worse, everything we do or say changes the world in some small way. It might not be easily discernible today, but as the proverbial saying goes, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one place causes a hurricane to erupt in another place. What we do and say for the good impacts the world indelibly for the better and what we do or say for the bad impacts the world indelibly for the bad.
Life is like a puzzle. When you discover a single missing piece, you uncover the key to an entire segment of the puzzle. It works the same in theory. Understanding one aspect of a theory, allows the entire theory to fall into place. The same is true for humanity. Helping one person, uplifts all of humanity. Every detail impacts the big picture. Every aspect changes the world.
This is an important reflection for us as we begin to study the Torah anew this week and read about those who lived a long life to enable their discoveries to set the stage for future generations.