26 August 2022

Drinking to life, to
lives, to friendship, and
to the meaning of life

Patrick Comerford

To life, to life, l’chaim.
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.
Here’s to the father I tried to be!
Here’s to my bride to be!
Drink, l’chaim, to life!

To life, to life, l’chaim.
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.
Life has a way of confusing us,
Blessing and bruising us.
Drink, l’chaim, to life!

God would like us to be joyful,
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
But how much more can we be joyful
When there’s really something to be joyful for?
To life, to life, l’chaim.

Rosh Chodesh Elul 2022 (רֹאשׁ חוֹדֶשׁ אֱלוּל 5782‎), the start of month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar, begins at sundown this evening (26 August 2022) and ends at nightfall on Sunday (28 August 2022).

Elul (אֱלוּל) is the sixth month in the Hebrew year and the twelfth month in the Jewish civil year, has 29 days.

In Jewish tradition, the month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The word Elul is similar to the root of the verb ‘search’ in Aramaic. Jewish sources from the 14th century on write that the Hebrew word Elul can be understood to be an acronym for the phrase in the Song of Songs, ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li’ – ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’

Elul is seen as a time to search one’s heart and draw close to God in preparation for the coming Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

On this Friday evening, I am thinking of Tevye the Milkman and reflecting on how he drinks to life. Tevye is the fictional narrator and protagonist in a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem first published in 1894, including the adaptations for the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and its film adaptation (1971).

Tevye is the patriarch of a Jewish family in the village of Boyberik. Although it has been renamed Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roo), it is based on the town of Boyarka, 20 km south-west of Kyiv in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire.

L’chaim (לְחַיִּים) seems to many to be the quintessential Jewish greeting, Jewish toast, Jewish hope, Jewish saying.

In Hebrew, L’chaim (לְחַיִּים) means ‘to life’ and also, ‘for life.’ Perhaps ‘for life’ is a better translation of ‘l’chaim’ in Tevye’s song.

Life is never simple nor easy, and rarely goes as planned. L’chaim teaches us that the past is behind us — the good and the bad. L’chaim is a directional phrase pointing to the future. But we also know full well that we may not be able to control things that happen to us, and that our lives all to easily are turned upside down.

In his song, Tevye asks for prosperity, for good health and for good fortune. But not all of life’s possibilities and choices turn out to be pleasant ones.

Tevye’s toast, L’Chaim, is, of course, celebrating life. But the word chaim for life, as used in Genesis 2: 7, ends with -im, a grammatical indicator of plurality. God did not create life as chi but as chaim (plural).

The courtyard of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, the only surviving synagogue in Crete … its name (בית הכנסת עץ חיים‎) mean Tree of Life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is interesting that the Hebrew word chaim (חַיִּים) is in the plural. In fact, it is impossible to say the word ‘life’ in Hebrew in the singular form. In a similar way, one of the Biblical names for God, Elohim, has a plural form, even though it is always understood as God in the singular.

Chaim means alive or life. As a noun, it is treated as a plural: chaim arukim, a long life – arukim is in the plural. In the first blessing before the Shema in Morning Prayers, the phrase Elokim chaim is now understood to mean: ‘God [who is] alive.’ If it meant that, however, it would read: Elokim chai. The plural of the noun chaim remains unchanged: chaim.

The Hebrew Bible repeats the phrase Elokim chaim a total of five times (see Deuteronomy 5: 23; I Samuel 17: 26 and 17: 36; Jeremiah 10: 10; Jeremiah 23: 36).

The sages teach that the two Yods located between the Cheth and the Mem in Chaim (חַיִּים) when combined form the name of God. The sages said one of the names of Messiah is Chaim, disclosing one of the defining characteristics of the Messianic Age.

The Talmud tells about the sage, Choni HaM’agel (‘Choni the Circle Maker’) who once fell asleep in a secluded area and awoke 70 years later. When he discovered that all of his companions and friends had died long ago, he prayed to God that he too would die. The Talmudic sage, Rava, later commented on this story, ‘O Chavruta O Mituta – give either companionship or death.’

Without companionship and friendship, is life worth living?

The Talmud points out how people are often forced into social or literal isolation because of their circumstances. For example, the poor are shunned from mixing with the more affluent in society; a Metzorah or person with a disease is quarantined and isolated; a blind person may become housebound; people with no children are often left out of social conversation. Each one finds their involvement in society is seriously diminished, and find their life is less of a life.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for life to be written in the plural form is to teach us that life can only be truly experienced when it is shared with others. A person who lives in a vacuum, or secluded on a mountaintop, is not truly alive. We need to be involved in society and to share our lives with others: the plural chaim.

The Talmud says that when two people share a drink together, it brings them closer together. In light of this, the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), the third Rebbe of Chabad, said that when two people, for whatever reason, share a drink and wish each other ‘l’chaim,’ they draw down peace and blessings into the world.

Life is meant to be lived sharing with others.


Shabbat Shalom

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