Francois-Maroe Aronet Voltaire once observed that: “many people die without ever having lived.” Similarly, Nicholas Murray Butler, once president of New York’s Columbia University, remarked of one non-productive faculty member, “Dead at thirty, buried at sixty.” Therefore the question remains, according to Rabbi Morris Silverman, of blessed memory, is not how many years to a person’s life but how much life to a person’s years? A long life may not be good enough, but a good life may well be long enough.
Chapter five of the Book of Genesis comprises a genealogy of the descendants of Adam. Beginning with the progenitor of humanity, the Torah includes a list of manes, each accompanied by names of children and the number of the father’s years: “And all the days that Adam lived were 390 years, and he died,” “And all the days that Seth lived were 912 years, and he died,” “And all the days of Kenan were 910 years, and he died.” Note the concluding formula “and he died.” It is a plaintive, nihilistic refrain suggesting the road to oblivion until we get to the life of the second Hanokh.
Now the formula changes: “And all the days of Hanokh were 365 years. And Hanokh walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:22). Note that this Hanokh lives less than half the years of his antecedents yet his life was vastly different. The fact that the genealogy following Hanokh reverts to the same old doleful refrain attests to the uniqueness of his life. Because Hanokh walked with God – however understood – his life was not consigned to the terse obituary “and he died.” Rather, he had added something important to his years, despite having fewer of them. Therefore, the Torah gives him special status. When noble life is valued more than long life there is cause for special notice.
Accordingly, it is incongruous to speak of the survival of Judaism as if a life span of four thousand years alone warrants a claim of uniqueness. Actuarial tables must not measure Judaism. It matters little how many years Jews have survived if survival is all that matters. Once Jews fail to “walk with God” the number of years of existence is irrelevant. Nations, like people, must have purpose and achievement for their existence to matter.