Sometimes, the most innocuous or seemingly uninteresting verse will bring up the most interesting discussions. Today, I started parashat VaEra with my seven-year-old daughter, and we got to Shemot verse 6:16, which reads:
וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי-לֵוִי, לְתֹלְדֹתָם–גֵּרְשׁוֹן, וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי; וּשְׁנֵי חַיֵּי לֵוִי, שֶׁבַע וּשְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה.
Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kahat, and Merari, and Levi lived 137 years. My daughter asked, doesn’t the Torah say that people will only live 120 years? She was referring to Bereishit verse 6:3, which reads:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
I was really impressed with this question. I’m not sure why it didn’t come up earlier, as there are plenty of people before Levi who live longer than 120 years. It could be because I recently learned that verse with my five-year-old daughter, so my older daughter may remember it from then. Whatever brought it up, I love when my kids think of the same questions that scholars have struggled with for centuries.
I have been getting more comfortable presenting ideas based on modern scholarship to my daughters. I remember hearing a lecture a long time ago about when to introduce these ideas to children, and the suggestion was high school or college, once they are able to comprehend more sophisticated ideas. However, I am leaning towards starting early. Firstly, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, I don’t shy away from discussing complex ideas with my daughters, figuring that they will comprehend what they can, and perhaps come back to the ideas later, but at least I am giving them an honest answer. Secondly, I am not so convinced that the traditional explanations are any simpler, and this is a great example.
I told her that this was a great question, and explained what a contradiction is. I further explained that there were different traditions about things that are presented in the Torah, and they don’t always agree. One tradition is that people can’t live longer than 120 years, but another tradition said that some people a long time ago lives for hundreds of years. She then asked when the Torah was written, and I told her that it took hundreds of years to complete, but it was likely complete by around 2500 years ago. Of course that number has little meaning to a child, but other than that, the explanation seemed pretty simple.
I actually wasn’t aware of the traditional explanation, but I looked it up afterwards. Rashi explains that the verse in Bereishit doesn’t mean that people will only live to be 120 years old, but rather that the generation of the flood will have 120 years to repent. Rashi anticipates the question, which is that this is hard to understand, as just before this passage, the Torah states than Noach is 500 years old, and he is 600 when the flood begins. The solution is that the decree was given 20 years earlier. There is no textual proof for this – but it seems to be the only way out of the contradiction.
However, I think this is a pretty complicated kvetch, and at least as hard to explain to a seven-year-old as the concept of a contradiction. Furthermore, I’d be curious to see the traditional explanation for this, but it is pretty clear that culturally we accept the plain meaning of the verse, as we all wish people to live until 120. Where else does that tradition come from? In fact, the verse seems quite prophetic, as to this day that seems to be the limit to how long a person can live, though it must have been much rarer back then to live so long.
I will have to see how my “simple” explanations go as time goes on, and if the discussions become more complex, or bump against things she is learning in school. But I also can imagine a scene where a friend in college is having a crisis of faith, having just discovered the Documentary Hypothesis, and my daughter replies, “Yeah, I knew about that when I was seven – so what?”
As an aside, it is interesting that she noticed this fairly obscure contradiction, but missed the more commonly observed one that involves two other nearby texts. We had just read Shemot 6:3, where God introduces himself with His new name, saying that no one before knew that name:
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
But in Bereishit 4:26, it says this name was used first by Enosh (and of course later the Avot do as well).
וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.
Not to mention that this is the second time God reveals His name to Moshe – this already happened in Shemot 3:13-15. I briefly mentioned these contradictions as well to my daughter which she found interesting, but not much discussion ensued.