What does the Torah say about… living forever?

With Rabbi Gary Wayland.

DO YOU want to live forever?

The answer for some is definitely yes. Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, had a team working for years in an attempt to help ensure – unsuccessfully – that he would live to 120. Others take even more drastic steps; cryonics is the practice of attempting to freeze humans immediately after death, with the hope that future generations will develop the technology to revive and cure them.

What does the Torah say about living forever? There are certain figures from Jewish history who seemed to have escaped death. Most famous of all is Elijah the Prophet, who leaves this world in a fiery chariot. This reflects the tradition that Elijah did not die, and is merely in waiting to herald the arrival of the Messiah – along with, in the meantime, having a presence at every brit and Pesach seder table!

Serach, granddaughter of Jacob, is counted as being one of those who entered Egypt in the time of Joseph, and also counted in the census as they entered Israel, some 250 years later; the Midrash goes even further to say she was still around in the times of King David, many hundreds of years later. Longevity was part of the Edenic plan – the Tree of Life was meant to provide just that.

However, after the sin, we see people living for around a thousand years, a figure that diminishes slowly until around the time of the patriachs, when a couple of hundred years seemed standard. Enoch, one of the links in the chain between Adam and Noah, “walked with God, and then was no longer, because God had taken him” (Gen. 5.24).

Rashi explains this enigmatic verse as meaning that Enoch was taken before his time (at the sprightly young age of 365), as although he was righteous, he was liable to stumble and so God wanted him to die innocent.

Ethics of the Fathers best expresses the paradox of life: “an hour of repentance and good deeds outweighs the life of the world to come; an hour of the world to come outweighs all the pleasures of this world“ and “It is not up to you to complete the job, but you cannot pardon yourself from it either”.

We live forever by maximising the opportunities that we are given – by creating legacies of kindness, holiness and Divine knowledge – and through that can ensure the moments are not fleeting but eternal.