How long do you plan to live?

September 26, 2017 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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There is one thing that all of humanity, indeed every living organism, has in common.  That is that we all grow older, day by day, year by year!…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

This year BH I merited to celebrate my 65th birthday.  When that auspicious day arrived,, I spoke on the phone with a pensions consultant in the UK where I used to live and work.  We and we were talking about whether I should retain the small amount of money I had in the fund or withdraw it – and then he threw me a question which shocked me to the very foundations.

You know my wife often says to me “Chaim, you rabbis live in a world of your own!”  Maybe!  But I think, and I certainly hope, that even in 2017 when almost nothing can shock us any more, many of us, not just rabbis, would still be shaken by the question this consultant threw at me.  He asked me “How long, Mr. Ingram, do you plan to live?”

I was utterly shocked – and, all I could reply was, “That’s an interesting question but the truth is that I actually don’t know!”

In the celebrated unesaneh tokef prayer we recited earlier, we sang the same words congregations have been intoning since it was composed a thousand years ago. BeRosh HaShana Yikateivu Uveyom Tsom Kippur Yeichateimun,  Kama Ya’avrun, VeKama Yiborei’un, Mi Yichyeh Umi Yamut!  On Rosh haShana it is inscribed above and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass from the world and how many will be born;   who will live, who will die.   

A wiser man than any of us, Shlomo haMelech, King Solomon himself proclaims in the book of Proverbs (19:21) a sentiment we express every single day in our prayers.  Rabot machashovot be-leiv ish ve-atsat haShem hi takum. Many thoughts, many plans take root in the heart of a human being but G-D’s plan will prevail!   As the famous Yiddish saying goes der mensch trakht un G-tt lakht Man proposes and G-d disposes.  Or, in the words of the late John Lennon, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans!”  Obviously that pensions bloke I spoke to wasn’t a Beatles fan!

Yes we can plan a wedding but we can’t plan a marriage.  We can plan a house but not a home.  We can plan a nursery but we can’t plan a baby.  We can plan a trip to Houston but we can’t predict hurricanes. We can plan for retirement but we cannot plan how long that retirement will be.  Because WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL!

“How long do we plan to live?”  There’s just one word too many in that question.  Take one word away and it becomes the most compelling question we could possibly ask ourselves this Rosh haShana.  Let’s take that one word out of the question and let’s ask ourselves HOW do we plan to live!

You know it’s amazing how, as we approach Rosh haShana, the parashiyos the Torah readings in shul, challenge us so appropriately.

Just last Shabbos, the following words were read: RE’EH, see, NATATI LEFANEICHA HA-YOM I’m setting before you this day ET HA-CHAYIM VE-ET HA-TOV, life and everything that’s good VE’ET HA-MAVET VE-ET HA-RA, and death and everything that’s not good.  Some choice, huh!  Hey, I’m going to offer you tonight’s star prize which even millions of bucks couldn’t buy or the booby prize worth less than zilch.  What’s the question! 

But then the Torah says something extraordinary.  UVAKHARTA BA-CHAIM, choose life!

Do we need to be told to choose life? What then would a person choose?

So in Hebrew, it’s very interesting.     We say:  uvacharta  BA-chaim, be selective WITHIN the realm of life The Torah is urging us to be mindful of HOW we choose life and what kind of life we are choosing.

How long we plan to live, isn’t in our hands.  How we plan to live, most decidedly is!

Sadly we’ve all at some time or other experienced shiva houses as visitors and many of us as mourners too.  In English we wish a mourner “long life” – but in Hebrew what do we say?  Arichut Yamim!  We wish the mourner “long days!” What do we mean long days?  A day is 24 hours long, isn’t it?

But everyone who is familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ”If” will know the celebrated line “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds worth of distance run / Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it / And which is more, you’ll be a man, my son!”

If we can fill each unforgiving hour of our waking lives with 60 minutes’ worth of mitsvot, of chesed, of goodness and kindness, of learning, of growing, of appreciating every sunrise, every birdsong, every flower, then ours is the earth and everything in it and which is more we will be true children of the Patriarch Isaac of whom it is said he was zaken,u-seva yamim,  satisfied with the quality of his days.  Our patriarchs and matriarchs didn’t measure their lives in years, instead they counted in days and they made every day count!  And that, making every day count, –that is in our hands.

My podiatrist has hanging on his wall a cute tablet which says: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift and that is why it’s called the present!”

Yesterday we can’t change.  Tomorrow we cannot know. Today is ours to impact. HaYom! Today! we reiterated confidently a few moments ago. Eventually every tomorrow becomes today. And every today is a gift. Let’s make the present count!

I shall leave you today with a message my shul rabbi gave me on my Bar Mitsva 52 years ago, I still remember it as if it were yesterday. He focussed, not surprisingly, on my name, a Hebrew name I hadn’t really thought about much up to then.  He said: “your name CHAIM means life, and the word CHAIM is made up of four letters CHET, YUD, YUD, MEM.  The middle letters he said comprise the name of G-D – two YUDs. Take the two YUD’s out of Chaim and you get CHAM – and cham, he said, means “hot “ and – remember he was an old-style, no-nonsense rabbi, – and he said:  “and where’s the place that it’s excruciatingly hot?  Down there!  He said (I don’t know whether it was these very words, I might be taking poetic license, but words to the effect)   “it’s a hell of a life without commitment to HaShem!  But when you commit to Him, when you know He’s there, life can be heaven on earth!”

We just prayed fervently that G-D will inscribe us all in the Sefer Chaim, in the Book of Life.  But my suggestion this morning is – let’s return the compliment, let’s inscribe G-D in our Book of Life.  Let’s find room for Him, and let’s plan to live LIFE according to His master plan!

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