This week’s parasha starts with Moshe interrupting his speech to go down among בני ישראל:
Now that phrase, בן מאה ועשרים שנה אנכי היום, reminds me of my Omi, wishing me ביז הונדערט און צוואַנציק. We add עמו״ש after people’s names. “To 120” is a big deal, but no one really knows where it comes from. Moshe lived to 120, but lots of people in the Torah lived longer. Why Moshe? Why not Avraham, “ביז הונדערט און זיבעציק פינף יאר”? Why not David, “to 70 years”?
Philologos, a language column in the Forward, connects it to the manner of Moshe’s death:
But there’s another potential source:
The Malbim says that this was the point that ה׳ limited the natural human lifespan, from the hundreds of years that are recorded in בראשית.
But there are lots of problems with that. First, the lifespans after the flood are also in the multiple hundreds. Second, the פשט of the pasuk is that 120 years is the limit of humanity’s lifespan, not the individual person:
Third, 120 years is not a “natural” lifespan, as even Moshe says:
And the well-known mishna doesn’t even make it past 100:
Fourth, this pasuk has 120 years as a bad thing. Why would we wish it on someone?
This idea, that there is a limit to human life, comes up on the יומים נוראים:
And this idea, that we may die בְקִצּוֹ or לֹא בְקִצּוֹ is an important philosophical point:
So we have the idea that not everything is determined on Rosh Hashana:
But then wishing ביז הונדערט און צוואַנציק sounds like “I hope you run out the clock before you croak”. Not much of a ברכה, especially if we allow that a צדיק could live longer.
The Sifrei has a very different perspective on what it means to live “to 120”. It notes that 120 is three times 40, which is mentioned in the mishna as בן ארבעים לבינה. 40 years is an intellectual generation:
After 40 years, the influence of the שופט wanes and בני ישראל return to idolatry. And that’s why it took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to get to the point that בני ישראל were ready to enter the land;
So what does it mean to be 120?
The idea is not that they lived so long, but that they had the intellectual courage to reach 40, be set in their בינה, their understanding of the world and their role in it, and then go on to something completely different, not just once but twice. They made re-inventing themselves a חזקה.
And that’s what the ברכה of ביז הונדערט און צוואַנציק יאר means. Not, “may you grow old”, but “may you remain forever young, intellectually curious, willing to strike out in new directions”. בן ארבעים לבינה should not be an invitation to inertia, but an opportunity for growth.