September 18, 2003
The Smart Choice
Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
Recently, I came across a story about a man who made the "unforgivable" mistake of missing his wife's birthday. When the wife expressed her anger, the quick-witted husband responded, "Sweetheart, how do you expect me to remember your birthday when you never look any older?"
If only that were true, and we could find the secret elixir for everlasting youth, we would all be happier. Although some French winemakers would like us to believe that imbibing one glass of French wine each day will do the trick, most of us realize that, considering the alternative, aging is a blessing.
And yet we must wonder, how does one make the best with the time we are given on earth? This question is as old as man himself, and the Torah did not shy away from offering us some essential advice. Moses, on his last day on this earth, summed it up for us when he declared, "Therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed" (Deuteronomy 30:19).
The late 13th century biblical commentator, the Baal HaTurim, notes that the Hebrew word used in this verse for life wasn't the usual "L'chaim," but "B'chaim." He suggests that the reason "B'chaim" was chosen is because its numerical value equals 70, and the number 70 teaches us three lessons about life that are important to remember:
First he notes, the normal life span of man is 70, as Moses taught us in his famous Psalm, "The days of our years are 70, and if with strength, 80 years" (Psalm 90:8). Moses wanted us to realize first and foremost that we must use every minute of the life that we are given to its fullest. Seventy years passes way too fast for one to ever be able to say, "I have time to kill." No ethical society can tolerate murder, and likewise no one should murder time, for the ultimate gift is time itself.
Second, 70 is also associated with another concept that is basic to Jewish life. Our sages tell us that there are "70 ways to interpret the Torah."
Simply put, that means that there is a lifetime of study awaiting each Jew. I recall how the late great talmudic scholar and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, reminded us that if we wished to remain young we should never stop learning. On one occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik, reflecting on his many years of teaching, explained: "My classroom is crowded with boys who, as far as age is concerned, could be my grandchildren. When I enter the classroom, I am filled with despair and pessimism. I always ask myself: Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a rebbe in his Indian summer and boys enjoying the spring of their lives? I start the class without knowing what the conclusion will be. Let me tell you, at the conclusion of the class, which can sometimes last three or even four hours, I emerge young. Younger than my pupils. They are tired and exhausted. I feel happy. I have defeated age. I feel young and rejuvenated" (Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Aaron, The Rav, Vol. 2, pp. 186-189).
Finally, the Baal HaTurim notes that "B'chaim" equals the numerical value for the Hebrew word sod (mystery). Life is worth living because it offers the excitement of uncovering the mystery of our very existence. There is so much to discover, so much to learn, that there is no time waste.
As we prepare to end one year and begin another, the three-fold lesson of the word, "B'chaim," is worthy of our notice. Maybe that is why this Torah reading is always right before Rosh Hashanah, reminding us to choose wisely.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.