Age is Just a Number

Rabbi Fred Elias

Each week at Schechter, we post קריקטורת השבוע a “Cartoon of the Week.”  This week’s cartoon highlights a discussion in Parashat Hayei Sarah of Sarah’s death at the astonishing age of 127, offering a clever interpretation of the opening verse of the Torah

.וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 

Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the matriarch of the Jewish people, is considered a force of nature – someone with a strong, independent character – and somewhat of an anomaly in the patriarchal biblical world in which she lived. An argument could be made that her longevity is a reflection of these powerful character traits. When she cannot have children, Sarah asserts her authority, giving her maid-servant, Hagar, to Abraham so that he can have children through Hagar on Sarah’s behalf. 

Interestingly, the cartoon focuses on Sarah’s age as a way of explaining the mathematical concept of a Mersenne prime (M), a prime number that is one less than a power of two, named after the French Friar Marin Mersenne, who studied them in the early 17th century. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer “n” that is a prime number.​ This week features the number of years Sarah lived: M7 = 27 − 1 = 127​. This modern mathematical Midrash reinforces the unusual way the Torah depicts its expression of Sarah’s age by repeating the Hebrew word, שָׁנָה.

The Midrash cites that the three-fold repetition of the word, שָׁנָה, is an indicator that Sarah was the first Eishet Hayil [woman of valor and the first woman in the Tanakh with a true Ba’alat Hesed – personality of kindness].  It goes on to compare her to Queen Esther, explaining that Sarah’s 127 years of life is the reason Esther was rewarded for her own kindness by conquering Haman and ruling over 127 provinces.

In observance of “World Kindness Month,” our school has engaged in a series of literary and hands-on activities to punctuate our related core values of Kehillah, community, Kavod, respect, and Tzedek, fairness.  But as our Head of School Steve Freedman reminds us all each day during the school announcements, every week should be kindness week and we should all strive to be kind each day.  According to a recent study by Dartmouth College, perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average human being.  

As Rabbi Akiva famously teaches us: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). This is the most important rule in the Torah. (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 30b).

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