This week we will start our Torah journey anew with the reading of Beresheet. Often times, a discussion of Beresheet focuses on the intersection or incompatibility of science and religion. This is due to the statement of the earth being created in six days. However, rather than engage in that conversation on origins of creation or of Adam and Eve, I thought it might be fun to look at another challenging issue in Genesis: age.
Near the end of Beresheet, it tells us “all the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died” (Genesis 5:5). Adam’s son Seth lived to be 912 years old. Enosh was 905, and Methuselah was the longest lived at 969 years. Just to name a few. As an aside, Noah lived to be 950 years old. He was over 500 years old at the time of the flood.
The question is: did these men live to be this old, or are these numbers symbolic? Or do these numbers follow some form of scheme or mnemonic we simply have failed to comprehend? The reality is, we simply do not know. What we do know is that “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). What we do know is that 120 has become the symbolic number for a good and full life. And there are human beings today who have lived close to those number of years.
There is another possibility with regards to the reading of ages in the Torah. Adam and Eve, until the incident with the fruit of all knowledge (most likely a fig and not an apple), were immortal. By living in the Garden of Eden, they could never die. But they could also never experience the joy of having children nor could they understand the human condition.
It was only after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden that their lives became closer to mortal. The further away we get from the Garden of Eden in our stories, the shorter the life spans become until the time of Moses. Moses, who, among other things, now also serves as the embodiment of mortality.
On this Shabbat where we think about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the age of Judaism, and the age of humanity, let us not lose sight of the fact that age is just part of life’s greater journeys. In this sense, age is more than just a number. As a writer noted: “There’ll be two dates on your tombstone and all your friends will read them. But all that is going to matter is that little dash between them.” We, like Adam, Methuselah, and Moses, only have so much time. So let’s make the most of it.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff