The Torah promises “l’ma’an yirbu y’meichem al ha’adamah”, a reward of long life in the Land of Israel for those who keep mitzvos. The gemara (Brachos 8) records that R’ Yochanan wondered how there could be old people living in Bavel – the promise of “long life” is given only “In the Land”, not in exile. When he heard that these old people rise early to come to shule and end their day by going to shule, he understood that this was the source of their special reward.
The Maharasha explains the gemara’s conclusion based on a gemara in Megillah which teaches that the batei kneysiyot and batei midrashot of Bavel will in the future be removed from exile and relocated to Eretz Yisrael. It is as if these locations are pieces of Eretz Yisrael in exile – embassies of the Land. Therefore, the old people who spend time in shule receive the same reward which is promised to those in Eretz Yisrael proper.
However, it remains difficult to understand what R’ Yochanan was initially so awe struck by. Was he not aware of old people living outside Eretz Yisrael? Did he not think there were non-Jewish old people in the world? The Kli Chemdah (P’ Bechukosai) explains that the term “zakein” is explained by the gemara (Kiddushin 32b) to mean “zeh shekanah chochma”. Age without wisdom is not a value; the promise of a long life must be understood to mean a promise of a life of knowledge and learning as well. R’ Yochanan at first thought that this combination of years and wisdom was possible to achieve only in the spiritual environment of Eretz Yisrael. When he heard that the old of Bavel also prioritized ruchniyus in their lives, he acknowledged that this too was a kiyum of the bracha of “zikna” the Torah promises.