One of the issues confronting society of late is the morality of stem-cell research. We will not get into this controversial subject, except to note one aspect of the debate. According to the proponents of this research, one of the potential benefits is that we will be able to replace failing and ailing organs and thereby guarantee longevity, perhaps even immortality.
While there are genuine questions about the propriety of this cutting edge research, the fear that humans will enjoy greater longevity and perhaps even immortality, ought not be an impediment to this area of scientific endeavor. On the contrary, according to Jewish belief, death came upon the world as a result of Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit. Had they not violated the command not to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they would have lived forever. In other words, humankinds most natural nature — before he degraded itself — was to enjoy immortality. Thus, in the Messianic Age, after thousands of years of cumulative good that has brought G-dly energy into the world, the process of death will be reversed. Death will ultimately be conquered, as many Biblical verses affirm.
The fact that humankind can even theorize about immortality is a sign that we are living in exciting and momentous times, on the very threshold of the Messianic Age when the theory will become a reality — with or without stem-cell research.
But Judaism has also taught us that whatever G-d gives us as a gift, we must try to earn by our own efforts in the same direction. Notwithstanding the fact that longevity has been promised to us for the future, we ought to prepare for the future by introducing elements of it — to the extent that we are capable of — into our lives.
The key to longevity is actually mentioned in this week’s Parsha, Ekev. For following His commandments, specifically Mezuzah, G-d has promised us: “...that your days shall be multiplied and the days of your children, upon the land which G-d swore unto your fathers to give them..” — the blessing of longevity.
The Talmud records the Israeli Rabbi Yochanan’s amazement when he heard there were old men in Babylonia. “Doesn’t the Torah state “your days shall be multiplied and the days of your children, upon the land?” asked Rabbi Yochanan Rabbi Yochanan was incredulous at the prospects of people who do not live in the actual Land of Israel to enjoy the blessing of longevity? When Rabbi Yochanan was told that the people in Babylonia attend the House of Study early in the morning and remain there late at night, he understood how they could live long.
What is the meaning of the association of longevity with living in the Land of Israel and how does attending the House of Study early in the morning and late at night compensate for living there?
To be sure, the importance and holiness ascribed to the Land of Israel applies literally to the geographic Land of Israel. For thousands of years, Jews have prayed for their ability to return to the Land of Israel. However, there is also a metaphoric sense of the Land of Israel, that can apply wherever we are situated. Indeed, our challenge here is to create the spiritual environment of Israel, wherever we may be.
Rabbi Yochanan knew that the the curse given to Adam and Eve, i.e., that their bodies should not enjoy the immortality of the soul, could be removed somewhat by living in the Holy Land of Israel, where even the physical landscape is imbued with the Divine presence. And while the curse of mortality could not be removed until Moshiach arrives, it was ameliorated, upon the Jewish people’s entry into the Land of Israel, allowing for the blessing of longevity.
The Talmud, however, concludes that we can create this Divine atmosphere wherever there is a House of Study that is devoted to Torah study. In such an environment one can sense the G-dly atmosphere that is reminiscent of Israel. But, even frequenting a House of Study does not suffice for guaranteeing longevity; we must make Torah study the first and last part of our day. Torah study, even if it is for a few minutes a day, possess is most potent in terms of affecting our lives, when it occurs at the very beginning of one’s day — setting the tone for the entire day — and at the very end of the day, thereby sealing it and one’s entire being with the energizing vitality of Torah.