I just came across an article about the possibility that we may, within this century, develop technology that will enable human beings to live more than one thousand years. That sounds miserable to me, but it would lead to an annual one year, instead of two weeks, of vacation for working Americans. Can that be? Someone check my math. Bathroom breaks of over an hour would be considered appropriate. The mind boggles.
The Torah repeatedly promises that our days will be lengthened if we hold up our end of the brit, the covenant. A random example is Proverbs 3:1-2:
My child, do not forget my Torah, and guard My commandments with your heart. For they will give you length of days, years of life and peace.
There are plenty of other examples. It is clear from the context of this and other passages offering material benefits in exchange for adherence to the divine covenant that these benefits are not to be pursued as ends in themselves. One should not think to oneself, “I want to live to see Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2050 – I’d better start keeping kosher.” Instead, our adherence to God’s law is a good in and of itself – the promises of material benefit, whether bountiful crops or long life, come to us as a happy by-product of our maintenance of the proper relationship with God. It also is an affirmation of God’s reality in the world – the rightness of the covenant is so absolute that the created world affirms it. Finally these rewards are a statement about the essential unity of the Divine and physical worlds. God’s creation is imbued with a sense of the covenantal reality that must be competed by human beings. Our relationship with God, in other words, is not intended to hinge on its separation from the limited, physical world – it is expressed through it.
All well and good, but the text clearly says that if we follow God’s Torah, we will be physically rewarded. Not True in my experience, and also morally unacceptable to me because of the punishment implied by the inverse: if we disobey we are punished.
Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, also known as the Aish Kodesh, offers a new understanding of this – he promises us a different kind of immortality, that can be achieved through tikkun, repair of self. He writes the following in his Tzav v’Ziruz, a diary of reflections on seeking moral perfection:
If it is your will to serve God and to lift yourself up do not remain in your seventieth year of your life like you were on the day of your bar mitzvah. Every year set a goal for yourself, fashion yourself. If your name if Reuben for example, which Reuben will you be in the year to come? What will be his accomplishments, his service, his attributes? And this imaginary Reuben will be for you as a measure by which to measure yourself by, how much you still lack compared to this imaginary Reuben. If your service and the correction of your deeds is [tended to] each and every day, it will be enough to acquire the Reuben of the year to come. And if the coming year arrives and your measure yourself and you have not arrived at even a bit [lit: the ankles] of the Reuben of the new year, it will be in your eyes, God forbid, that your days will not be lengthened1. For [in this case] only that Reuben from last year or from ten years ago lives – and not the Reuben from this year; Avraham zakein ba byamim [lit: Abraham became old, he arrived in his days] – Abraham of today. He was of today not yesterday.
So, if we remain the person we were last year, we do not have a long life, so to speak, because who we are is consumed by the passage of time. But if we create a new person in our mind and strive toward that, we are constantly being “reborn” in this new possibility. Maybe not immortality, but a state of ongoing renewal and rejuvenation.Immortality? Consider that Shapira’s wrote that during the Shoah, the unfolding of the holocaust as his community was being immolated. Now, sixty five years after his death he instructs us how to live fully, to become more than what we are – to move ourselves beyond the constraints of time through spiritual transcendence. The investment of the limited, physical world, with eternal meaning through words of hope penned during days of chaos and death a generation ago: that is immortality.