Yesterday (today in the Diaspora), we read the final portion in the Torah, Vezot Haberakha; tomorrow, we read the first, Bereishit. This leaves us precious little time to study the opening chapters of Genesis, one of the many challenges of juxtaposing the beginning and the end.
However, it also allows us to see what the first and last portions of the Torah have in common: a thesis about the perfection of the human lifespan. Consider the sixth-to-last verse of each portion:
And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deut. 34:7)
And LORD said: My spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he too is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6:3)
This connection helps explain a particularly bizarre passage in the Talmud (Hullin 139b):
The Papunians asked Rav Mattena… Where is Moses in the Torah? “Because he too (be-shaggam) is flesh.”
Of course, Moses is mentioned by name no less than 649 times in the Torah. What could the Papunians be asking? It is true, as Rashi notes, that gematria is at play here, which gives a numerical value to each word, so that be-shaggam and Moses’ name are each equivalent to 345, but there seems to be something much deeper as well, linking the 120 years of this verse and the 120 years of Moses.
Now, Rashi himself does not use this interpretation in his biblical commentary; he interprets the 120 years not as a decree related to individual human beings, but to the human race as a whole: the great diluvian clock has now begun ticking, and mankind has only a century plus twenty percent before it will be swept away. Other commentators, from ibn Ezra to Da’at Miqra (Y. Kil), have followed this path, arguing that the 120 years of the Flood are akin to the 40 days of warning for Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, despite a) the absence of any public exhortation; b) the orders of magnitude between forty days and over fourteen thousand days; and c) the fact that God does not decide to bring a Flood until the next paragraph. However, the Malbim and others do follow the course suggested by Rav Mattena.
Indeed, this decree, which precedes that of the Flood, ultimately has more impact for the audience. It comes immediately after a long list of long lives; the youngest recorded death is that of Lamech, Noah’s father, at 777 (Enoch does not die but is “taken by God”), while the oldest is Methuselah at 969.
It would only be natural for the reader to balk at these inconceivable numbers. The Torah explains that in fact it is God’s decree, as we emerge from the mists of prehistory, that man will not live “forever,” but rather that the maximum for humans is to reach their thirteenth decade. Indeed, some scientists believe that this is biologically true as well.
It is striking that the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Torah pose complementary problems for the contemporary reader. The dilemma at the end of the Torah is that of authorship: who wrote the last eight verses, which take place (up to a month) after Moses’ death? That dispute is already recorded in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a), but some push it back to the beginning of Chapter 34, since Moses never comes down after he ascends Mt. Nebo; others push it back to Chapter 31, wherein Moses hands over the completed Torah scroll, or even further.
The quandary at the beginning of the Torah, on the other hand, is that of literalism. It is essentially impossible to take Chapter 1 literally (this may be reflected in the multiplicity of views as to what day of Creation Rosh Hashana corresponds to), as it includes elements such as three days and three nights before the heavenly bodies shine. What about Chapter 2, which is a different narrative of Creation? Or Chapter 3 and its talking serpent? Does history begin after the expulsion from Eden, after the Flood, after the fall of the Tower of Babel? In light of this issue, it is extremely significant that a decree from the Torah’s first portion is only realized in its last.
Our engagement with the Torah changes and develops as we change and develop. That’s why we always have to start anew with each new year. That is why Bereishit must always follow Vezot Haberakha.