During our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur in Gates of Repentance, there is a paragraph and a congregational response that are totally fascinating to me. The paragraph is reproduced in Mishkan HaNefesh and the congregational response is revised:
If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live for ever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or youth or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others – could the answer be in doubt? ‘We shall not fear the summons of death; we shall remember those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us!’
Most people I know want to live as long as they can, and they wish the same for their family and friends. They are understandably sad when a loved one dies, and it seems like death comes too soon at whatever age it occurs. It is possible that a life of a thousand years would be great, but a life of one hundred years would be more realistic. We find the reference to a thousand years in Psalm 90: “For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night.” I think it’s important to give some background about this psalm, to focus on the meaning of a thousand years, and to provide more realistic expectations for our lives.
In the Bible, Psalm 90 consists of 17 verses. Eight of those verses are found in our prayer book. The Psalm is introduced in the Bible with the words “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Of the 150 Psalms, 73 are directly attributed to King David. The Talmud contends that David included in the book quotations from so-called works of the elders such as Abraham, Solomon and Moses. The great Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages – Rashi and ibn Ezra – believed that David couldn’t have written all of the Psalms, and many modern commentators and scholars agree with that viewpoint. As a matter of fact, a number of them seem to be from a period later than that of David. Of all the psalms, the ninetieth Psalm is the one that mentions Moses in the introduction.
The main theme of this psalm is the brevity of humanity and the eternity of God. In his commentary on Psalm 90, Dr. A. Cohen wrote: “In sublime language it dwells upon the transitory character of man’s existence, but in no pessimistic mood. If life is brief, its moments are precious and must not be wasted in vain pursuits. The swift passing of his stay upon earth would render it meaningless and purposeless, were it not that God is everlasting and in Him is man’s abiding dwelling-place.” My own reading of the psalm leads me to conclude that Moses recognized that God has always existed and will continue to exist as a Creator and Protector. A long time for God is a short time for you and me – a thousand years are equivalent to a day. A “watch in the night” according to Israelite time was three hours. As short as that seems to us and seemed to them, it is like nothing for God. But Moses reasoned that it is not the quantity of our time that matters; it’s the quality. So, it is incumbent upon us to use our time wisely. The alternative is to feel as fragile as grass that grows and is cut down in a day. He ends by asking for the ability to understand God’s ways and to use that understanding to make our daily lives meaningful.
This philosophy contradicts the idea of living for a thousand years, for the latter philosophy ascribes value to an exceptionally long life. Imagine if you were now in your thousandth year. You would have been born during the Geonim period of Jewish history, when the heads of the Talmudic academies of Babylonia were viewed as the spiritual leaders of the Jews, and you would have been a contemporary of the great Saadya Gaon, who introduced rationalism into the study of the Talmud and criticized the Karaite heretics. You would have been about 70 when Rashi was born, more than 100 when the Crusades began, around 250 when the Magna Carta was signed, more than 500 years old when Columbus discovered America and when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The list could go on and on. From a historical perspective, it would be fascinating to have lived through those times. But the actual prospect of living even half of the thousand years tends to boggle our minds. And, the details of what it would mean to physically live that long make it seem like pure fantasy.
Truth be told, to think about living a thousand years is pure fantasy. In a country in which the life expectancy of men is 76 and of women is 81, even one hundred years seems fantastic rather than an average. It’s a Jewish folk custom, more than a religious tradition, to wish someone a long life. In Hebrew, we say: ahd meiah v’esreem. And in Yiddish, it’s biz hundert und tzvantzik. It means “to 120.” It refers to the fact that Moses lived that long. But the wish is not merely a wish for the greatest quantity of all. Methusaleh and Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were among those who lived longer than that age. It is, then, more realistic to expect – or, at least, to hope – to achieve a life of great quality more than a life of great quantity. We would all like to live as long as possible, and to be as healthy as possible for however many years it may be. We would have preferred that the loved ones or friends that we remember had lived longer. And, we would no doubt wish that a miracle cure would be discovered today, or at least in our lifetime, for all deadly diseases.
But if we only dwell on what could be, what could have been, and what we wish to be, we can become stuck in a world as full of fantasy as the idea of living for a thousand years. Moses – or whoever wrote Psalm 90 – had the right idea when he said: “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” My interpretation of that line is that we should be wise enough to know that our days are what we make of them. If a day is going badly, think about how it could have been worse, or what you can learn from it, or how tomorrow can be better. If you receive bad news, think about how to cope with it instead of making it worse by being immobilized by self-pity and doubt. If you have developed a bad relationship with someone, think about ways to improve it instead of wasting your life by harboring resentment or hatred. If you are heartbroken that a loved one or friend has died and that you are no longer able to share your life with them, think about how the way you live your life can bring honor to their memory. In other words, think about what is positive, possible and constructive. Don’t become neutralized or take a step backward by dwelling on what is negative, impossible and destructive. We must all face the fact that there are days that we longer have and may never have. And, there are days that we can have and will have. It’s all within our control to have hope and faith.
To want to live a thousand years is indeed a fantasy, and some would call it selfish –especially if it meant that no one else would be born. To make each day a blessing can be our reality, an attitude that can enrich our lives and the lives of others, and bring honor to the memory of our loved ones.
 Stern, Gates of Repentance, 484.
 Ps 90:4, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 1527.
 Ps 90:1, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 1526.
 A. Cohen, The Psalms, 297.