By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Have you ever thought about why Jews, when they raise a glass of wine in celebration or as part of ritual like kiddush, say “l’chayim,” “to life”? For most of us, saying “l’chayim” is one of those customs we do instinctively. Our parents did it, their parents did it. And to be sure, it adds a certain amount of oomph, a kind of boisterous energy to the act of drinking.
But there were many times in our people’s history when “l’chayim” was not so easy to say. This week, we marked Yom HaShoah and through our observance evoked the memory of lives lived in humiliation and degradation, six million lives cut short by evil and hatred. As we honor their memories, we also think of the heroic acts of resistance by the partisans who, even amid this desecration of life said “l’chayim,” and fought back and saved lives.
But the Talmud teaches us that this tradition of saying “l’chayim,” had its origins in something not celebratory at all. In Masechet Sanhedrin, the rabbis discuss the procedure for judging capital cases, cases where, if the defendant was found guilty, the sentence would be death. If the judges found the defendant innocent, they would say “l’chayim.” If not — “Ól’mitah,” to death.
If this is, indeed, how this tradition began, it only adds to the ambivalence or confusion we might feel about the recitation of this phrase. For almost two thousand years, Jews said “l’chayim” as they were kicked to the curb in almost every corner of the world. Perhaps they uttered it more as an aspiration than an affirmation, a hope that life might, one day, be more worthy of celebration. And I can imagine that there were certain times, over the long period of our exile, that Jews could hardly bring themselves to utter the word, “l’chayim” at all. But knowing the Jewish people as I do, I know they found a way to say it anyway. The questions is — how did they do it?
This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, contains one of the most important phrases in the Torah. “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man can live — va’chai bahem” (Leviticus 18:5). We keep the mitzvot, the commandments, the sacred pathway entrusted to us by God so that we can live. Traditionally, this verse is interpreted to mean that almost no mitzvah is worth dying for because the point of the mitzvot is to preserve and enhance life.
Skeptics ask, “Really? Mitzvot give us life? We all know pious Jews who have suffered needlessly, as they have throughout the generations.”
Rabbinic commentators provide us with a possible solution to this age old challenge. Rashi interprets the phrase, “v’chai bahem,” with the words “l’chayei ha’olam ha ba,” for the life in the world to come. The reward for fulfilling the commandments comes not in this world, but in the afterlife. Whatever success Jews of Rashi’s generation had was often turned against them and used as fodder for anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. A strong belief in a messianic era, a time in which the Jews would be redeemed and their enemies punished, was one of their most important ways of coping with the reality of their everyday lives. This powerful idea gave our people hope at a time when we had little of our own. When we said “l’chayim,” to life that is to come, we kept our faith alive when we might have otherwise given up on God and the practice of mitzvot.
But one of the blessings of being Jewish in America or in Israel is that since we Jews now have agency and control over our own lives in this world, we no longer need to feel as if we’re living solely for the world to come. Because we live in this particular time and place, a place that allows Judaism to thrive, if only we can nurture and sustain it, we can truly say “l’chayim” and mean it.
As we journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation, from celebrating our freedom to being given the tools to make our freedom matter, I pray that we miss not one opportunity to shout “l’chayim,” to toast a life of meaning and opportunity, blessed with the joy that comes from both.
Adam Roffman serves as rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.