I celebrated a somewhat-significant birthday in October. It didn’t end on a five or a zero, but a nine, signalling a certain decade’s ending.
Speaking in “Jewish,” we often get a birthday greeting with a specific number – 120. Growing up I heard, in Yiddish: biz hunert un tsvansig. In Hebrew we hear: ad me’ah ve’esrim. Moshe, we are told in the closing verses of Torah, Deuteronomy 34:7, was 120 years old when he died.
However, the connection is more likely drawn from the beginning of Torah, just prior to the story of the flood. The “divine beings” were unhappy with the way men were relating to women. “Y-H-W-H said: ‘My rushing-spirit shall not remain in humankind for the ages, for they too are flesh; let their days be then a hundred and twenty years’” (Genesis 6:3; translation Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses).
On the day of my somewhat-special day in October, many loving and lovely wishes – in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish – were posted on my Facebook wall. My hands-down favourite was: ad me’ah v’esrim v’shevah! To a hundred and twenty and seven!
I immediately knew the allusion, and was delighted to have received this blessing, rooted in both biblical knowledge and contemporary ideals.
Parshat Hayyei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah,” begins with the announcement of her death. But the Hebrew does not simply say “a hundred and twenty seven.” The Hebrew reads: me’ah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim – a hundred years and twenty years and seven years!
Midrash Genesis Rabbah explains the unusual form this way: as the righteous ones are whole, and have no sin, so their years are reported whole in the Bible. At age 20, Sarah was as a seven-year-old beauty, and at the age of 100, she was like a 20-year-old in sin (and thus not culpable for punishment for sin).
So Sarah’s death announcement comes to teach us something about Sarah’s youthfulness as well as her moral rectitude, and perhaps even her leadership qualities. The same midrash collection also noted a connection to Queen Esther, who comes to rule over the 127 provinces identified in the opening verses of the Megillah.
This October marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi, ordained in December 1935 in Berlin. Her thesis topic was “Can Women Serve as Rabbis according to Halachic Sources?”
We can, and should, continue to mine the texts for ways in, for creative inspiration, for practical guidance. We can, and should, celebrate the changes that have been wrought in our day, like the widespread training of women as rabbis across the spectrum. Yeshivat Maharat – the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as clergy – has graduated three classes of women who are now serving congregations and other institutions. Among them, Maharat Rachel Korn Finegold serves on the clergy team at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and Ottawa’s own Lila Kagedan, of the first graduating class of Yitzhak Rabin High School, who recently spoke at Limmud Ottawa, has claimed the title “Rabbi.”
The options available to us, and the inspiration from within the masoret (tradition), are vast. So, if I wish you, “‘Til a hundred and twenty seven,” on your next birthday (in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish), you’ll understand.