Parashat Va-era: Age is more than a number

Parashat Va-era: Age is more than a number

Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform

Genealogies tend not to be the most studied sections of the Torah. They are filled with names, including many that never feature prominently in the text. That is to say, while these men (and occasionally women) are integral to the establishment of ancient Israel, as individuals they do not have legacies that we remember. Indeed, for many being listed in the genealogy is their legacy.

These genealogies, though they do not garner the same kind of interest as the legendary stories and enduring legal codes of the Torah, are just as sacred. So when genealogies appear in the Torah, as occurs in this week’s Torah portion, it is natural to look for deeper meaning in them. In Exodus 6:14-25, we have what I would call a “narrative genealogy.” Most genealogies appear in order to help us understand the connection of generations (such as the one that connects Noah to Abraham in Genesis 11:10-26) or to show the breadth and strength of Israel (as in Numbers Chapter 2, part of a national census).

A narrative genealogy, by contrast, appears in the Torah to introduce a particular character or characters. The narrative genealogy in this week’s Torah portion is here to familiarize us with Moses and Aaron, and to help us understand their placement within the family. We know this in two ways.

First, the genealogy begins as if it is going to run through the heads of households in all twelve tribes. But it abruptly ends after three tribes, because Moses and Aaron belong to Levi, the tribe descended from Jacob’s third son. After reading about their births, we read more about their deeds. No mention is made here of the other nine tribes; in this section, at least, knowing about them is unnecessary, perhaps even distracting.

The other clue that this is a narrative genealogy is that, while the names are listed consistently, the ages are not. We read that Levi lived to the age of 137, that Kohath lived to 133, and that Amram also lived to 137. No ages are given for any of the other people named. It is easy to spot that the only three with quantified life spans are Moses and Aaron’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather. The 12th century Biblical commentator Ibn Ezra goes a step further, he says that the ages of these three are listed to honor their descendants, Moses and Aaron. The listing of one’s age, then, is more than a number. It is a hidden intergenerational honorific.

The 11th century commentator Rashi has a broader view on what to do with the ages in this narrative genealogy. He argues that they form a historical chronology that is intended not just to show the lifespans of individual people, but an examination of the timeline of slavery in Egypt until the Exodus. He interprets the text as saying that the period of enslavement did not begin until after Levi’s death. Add then the ages of Kohath, Amram and Moses at the time of the Exodus, and it is far less than 400, but that’s the amount of time that God tells Abraham they will be slaves in Genesis 15:13.

Often Rashi is content to apply the straightforward meaning of a word, but here he has crunched the numbers, and they simply don’t add up. He is forced to make a choice—either creative accounting or creative interpreting. He chooses the latter. The four hundred years begin with the birth of Isaac, who never set foot in Egypt, and was certainly never a slave. But to make his case, Rashi seems to rely on the phrase “enslaved and oppressed.” While no accounting can prove that the Israelites were slaves for 400 years, the word “oppressed” is more general. Isaac, one could argue, was oppressed by the men of Gerar. Jacob was oppressed by his brother and his uncle. Joseph was certainly oppressed by his brothers and the false accusation that landed him in jail. God’s prophecy about the 400 years, it turns out, was not a distant one, but one that would begin almost immediately after Abraham heard it.

This chronology forces us to reevaluate the timeline of our people’s earliest history. It compels us to ask what the difference is between slavery and oppression. In other words, we are being asked to examine one of our presumptions and see if it holds up in light of new evidence. And all because we are told Levi lived for 137 years.

This Shabbat we will mark a new year on the secular calendar. It is not an inherently sacred act to turn a page of the calendar from 2021 to 2022. But it is a sacred act to consider the passage of time, and whether we have spent it well. We are unlikely to live to 137 or 133 or even 120, as Moses did. But in accepting this reality, we can take comfort that age is more than a number. It is an opportunity to embrace life in both its happiness and oppressions. It is a chance to pursue truth in all its complexities. And it is a chance, as Parashat Va-era subtly does, to honor the generations before us and after us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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