September 18th, 2017

One of my favorite fictional characters growing up was Sherlock Holmes.

Even though he was the consummate British eccentric, there was something very familiar about him. His whole style of solving a case was very familiar, very Jewish. If you’ve read any Holmes stories you will know that his principle professional tool is “abductive reasoning”.

In the course of his encounters he makes observations about people or objects, often things that no one else has noticed, and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. Often the explanation he comes up with is counter-intuitive, or completely at odds with what you might expect. But it is the only possible explanation, and Holmes will use it to build a narrative that can solve a case.

Eventually, I realized why it was so familiar. I don’t know if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever studied in yeshiva – although he was writing in the 1880s and 1890s at around the same time that Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik was teaching Talmud at Volozhin yeshiva.

I say this because “abductive reasoning” is one of the principal methods of rabbinic study. You look at a text and make observations about it that most people wouldn’t notice, and based on that observation you build a thesis that is not intuitive but can have all kinds of implications.

One of the greatest Sherlock Holmes of the rabbinic world was Rashi. He often picks up on details in a biblical story that no one else has paid any attention to, and he then derives incredible lessons on how to live from these small, seemingly insignificant, details.

One of my favorite examples is at the beginning of Shemot, during the narrative of the Ten plagues. If you follow the story very, very carefully you will notice that with the first three of the ten plagues, Moses hands the staff to Aaron, and Aaron is the one who makes the plague happen. For the next seven plagues, Moses holds the staff himself, and it is Moses who makes the plagues happen.

You and I could read the story of the plagues a thousand times and never notice that detail, but Rashi is like a rabbinic version of Sherlock Holmes, and he notices this seemingly irrelevant piece of information – after all, what difference does it make?  But by using “abductive reasoning” he derives an important moral lesson from it.

The first plague was initiated by striking the Nile. But Moses did not hit the Nile himself. He remembered that when he was a baby, his mother had put him in a crib and put that crib in the Nile. And the Nile flowed gently, so the crib did not overturn, and he didn’t drown. Had the Nile been restless on that day, Moses would have drowned. God told him: how can you hit the object that saved your life? So he turned the staff over to Aaron, and Aaron struck the Nile instead of him.

The third plague was initiated by striking the sand. But Moses simply could not hit the sand himself. He remembered the day he killed the Egyptian taskmaster who had beaten the Jew for no good reason, and he had then hidden his body in the sand. If he had not hidden that body, the Egyptians would have found out what he did sooner, and they would have arrested him and put him on trial for murder. So he said to himself: How can I hit the sand which saved my life, and he turned the staff over to Aaron, and let Aaron strike the sand instead of him.

It sounds completely crazy. We all know that rivers and sand dunes don’t have feelings, and therefore the idea of not hitting them out of gratitude makes no sense to us. But Rashi goes one step further. This is where the abductive reasoning reaches a zenith. Rashi says that the Torah included this cryptic reference to teach us a lesson in how to behave in our own lives. If you need to remember to be grateful to inanimate objects, as Moses was, then Rashi says: “Al achat kama vekama—how much more so ought we to be grateful to any living human beings who have ever done us a favor?”

You might think that gratitude is important because a human being ought to be grateful to those who have been good to him. But there is a second reason as well. It will not only brighten the life of the person you thank, but it will make your life more meaningful.

And although I can’t tell you this for sure, but I think it will not just enhance your life, but lengthen it.

My great-aunt Yochi, my mother’s aunt, was born in 1900. I knew her well. She died in 2002, just short of her 102nd birthday. She got married late to an older man, and they had one child, who was mentally handicapped.

When the Nazis overran Holland in 1940 they took her child away from her and euthanized him. She never had another child. She and her husband went into hiding and survived the Holocaust, but her husband died in 1959, and she was left on her own for the remainder of her life.

But she was never on her own. She treated her nieces and nephews like her own children, and she was a regular visitor at our home. She was quite a wealthy woman, and traveled all over the world. At some point I must have told her I collected stamps, and from that point on she would send me stamps from the most exotic places you could imagine. To this day I can open a random book in my study and a little envelope will fall out, containing stamps from Bolivia, or Thailand.

Tante Yochi loved celebrating her birthday. Every year she would invite us to join her either in Holland, or in London, and she would arrange a great party.

I particularly remember her ninetieth birthday in 1990. Nowadays, turning ninety is not such a big deal. Lots of people do it. But in 1990 it was a real milestone, and what was even more unbelievable was that she was young physically – like a 70 or 75-year-old. The year before that she had gone skiing with our family in St Moritz.

For her ninetieth birthday party Tante Yochi hired a boat on the canals of Rotterdam, brought in a kosher caterer, and flew us all in to celebrate with her. Every year, at her birthday party, Tante Yochi would get up to speak, and she was a great speaker – very funny, very irreverent about herself.

But on this occasion, she was more serious. Obviously hitting 90 had made an impression on her.

“People ask me how I have managed to reach this age,” she began. “The truth is, I have absolutely no idea. God clearly decided that I should live this long, I was not part of the decision-making process, and He has not shared His reasoning with me. But perhaps if I tell you HOW I have lived, that is the answer, or part of the answer.”

“When I was young, a long, long time ago, there were many different theories about why or how a person lived a long life. Some people thought it depended on your genes. If your parents and grandparents lived a long life, you would live a long life. I don’t know about that. I know plenty of people whose parents lived long healthy lives who died young, and friends of mine lived very long lives whose parents died young.”

“Other people thought that how long you lived depended on your economic situation. Rich people live longer lives; poor people live shorter lives. I am not sure about that either.”

“Others said that how long you lived depended on the political situation. If you live in a communist country, or capitalist country, you would live longer, shorter, or whatever. That one is not true either.”

“There were other people who would say ‘it’s the climate’. Not convincing. Others said it’s a person’s temperament. Calm people live longer, ill-tempered people live shorter. In which case,” she said, smiling, “I should have died when I was 43, as I have the worst temper.

“Anyway, as a young woman I listened to all these different theories, and I realized that none of these people could prove they were right, or that those who disagreed with them were wrong.”

“So I came up with my own private theory. This is the ‘Tante Yochi theory of longevity’, and now that I’m 90 I feel I can share it.”

“I decided to live my life by faith, believing in the concept that God made this world, and that God made many good things in this world, that I benefited from, and therefore it was my duty to be grateful for these things and always to express my appreciation for them.”

“From that day on, whenever I have tasted good food, or seen a beautiful thing in nature, or whenever I enjoyed good music, or had success in business, I always said: ‘thank you, God, for this blessing.’ And seeing that everyone who exists is God’s creation, when they do something for me they are instruments of God, so I decided to thank them too.”

I can’t say for sure if Tante Yochi’s theory is correct, although she lived to be over 100, and was absolutely fine until about two months before she died. In fact, I visited her with my son Eli a few months before she died, and she taught him how to play video games on her computer – a lesson I fear he has never forgotten. She was 101 at the time.

There are a number of reasons why her theory might very well be correct. Firstly, the alternative — forever complaining about the things that happen to you in your life that are unpleasant or that are painful. Is that a recipe for long life or a good life?

It is easy to complain, and we all have things to complain about. I had a rebbe in yeshiva who used to say – “there are two types of people in this world, people with problems, and people who are going to have problems.” I am not a doctor, but I would suggest that complaining is not healthy, and could even be a slow killer…

But that is just my feeling, not empirical evidence. But let me offer you two other suggestions today, which, if Tante Yochi’s theory of longevity is solid, should guarantee you a long and meaningful life.

Firstly, go out and buy a notebook. Call it your ‘Gratitude Journal’. Every night, before you go to sleep, write down five good things that happened to you during the course of that day. We all have at least five good things that happened to us every day. And if you have more, write down a few more.

By the way, you can start each entry by writing down the fact that you got up that morning. That is no small thing—and you should not take that fact for granted. We Jews don’t  — we begin our prayers with Modeh Ani, thanking God for giving us our souls back after having been asleep.

And you could go on to list some other good things that happened today that you are grateful for: your house, your husband, your wife, your children, a nice conversation, your car started, you had a nice breakfast, lunch, supper, it’s not too cold, or too hot.

Think of how many things could have gone wrong, but didn’t. And even when they did go wrong, how much worse it could have been.

Thank you Hashem!

And I have a second suggestion too. Say thank you to people, even for the smallest thing. Smile at them, and say thank you. Nobody has ever got upset when they were thanked. Shocked, maybe. But upset? Never. Because everyone wants to feel appreciated. We like it when we are appreciated, so that means so does everyone else.

There are so many mitzvot in the Torah which revolve around appreciation and thanks to God – Bikkurim, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, the Todah offering, pidyon haben – and God wouldn’t expect these things of us if they were life-threatening (although I will have words with Him one day about matzah).

On Rosh Hashana we pray for life – Zochreinu Lechaim, Beseifer HaChaim. It makes no sense to pray for a life in which all we do is complain and moan about everything that happens to us. God doesn’t want us to suffer, so if he sees us complaining he just may shorten our lives.

But if we are thankful, and if we show our appreciation to Him and to everyone around us, God will see that we are enjoying everything in our lives and we are so happy, and give us some more time.

Anyway, that’s Tante Yochi’s secret – keep it to yourselves, and I hope to see you at your hundredth birthday.

Photo: Bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes in front of Baker Street underground station, London. icenando / 123RF Stock Photo

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