A popular Jewish saying is: May you live until 120! At first, this may sound more like a curse than a blessing. However, when you look at the Jewish sources for this proverb, you will realise that it isn’t a curse along the lines of ‘May you suffer a long and difficult life, because of all the pain you are inflicting on others!!’ Rather, it is a blessing of healthy longevity. In the book of Genesis the number 120 is recorded as the limit of human life expectancy. It is, however, especially associated with Moses. This is because ‘he remained youthful and vigorous until 120 years’ (Deuteronomy 34:7). In other words, Moses is the model of ageing with dignity and vitality: ‘Moses was 120 years old when he died: his eye was not dimmed nor his natural force weakened.’
Although there are a number of people in the Torah who lived past 120 years, Moses is described as having lived a long life without experiencing the ravages of old age. He, like the very first Jew Abraham, was blessed with a good old age.
Bette Davis put it bluntly – ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies’.
You don’t have to work in aged care to know that getting old can be brutal and unforgiving. It challenges the best of bodies, the most subtle of minds. We may be living longer, but we are not necessarily living better. We may have conquered outer space, but we have not yet found a way of overcoming the anguish and inner space of dementia. (There is a little ray of light in recent research indicating a possible drug to slow down the process of memory loss).
George Burns may have got it right when he said: By the time you’re 80 years old, you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it!
Another George, George Valiant, a researcher and writer on ageing has identified two dimensions of successful ageing, ways of staying young while growing old. He calls them generativity and becoming a keeper of the meaning. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attributes these two dimensions to Moses and especially to his final message to the Jewish people.
This week Jews across the world started reading that magnificent final message of Moses to his people before his death. It is recorded as the Book of Deuteronomy. It is different from the other four books of the Torah or Pentateuch in that it is the personal and intimate voice of Moses himself.
In this book, Moses not only emerges as a supreme keeper of meaning, but also as a sensational transmitter of meaning. The words that Moses shares in this book, which in Hebrew is called the Book of Words, or Devarim, leap out from the page and cross the generations with an astonishing relevance and vibrancy. He talks about the connections to a Creator, to God, that grace and shape our souls and substance. This is the meaning of the covenantal relationship; a covenant is not a transactional contract, but a shared commitment to a better life in a better world. He talks about our relationships to others, and how love is the force that ignites the fuse of the world. He speaks about memory and how the past shapes the present and the future. He talks about education and how it transforms the imagination. He focuses on generational change and the meaning of success.
In other words, rather than withdrawing from life and reminiscing about his past, he committed himself to showing the next generation the meaning of generativity, about remaining dynamically alive despite ageing, and by inspiring them to become guardians and shapers of meaning.
These messages of Moses continue to guide the Jewish people and to offer wisdom to the world. They also remind us we have much to learn from our elders, that age isn’t a barrier to engagement. The statesman Henry Kissinger, who recently turned 100, was in China this week to talk politics and history, challenges and opportunities.
Even though this is a dark period on the Jewish calendar, this message of Moses is a legacy of light. (Look at my video message about the Ninth of Av, Tisha BAv).
This final address of Moshe helps us shoulder the burden of our history, and inspires us to continue to find hope and meaning for our embattled global civilisation.