In honor of this week’s parasha, a poem about Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah and the man who, famously, lived to the ripe age of 969. Like many stories in the Torah, it’s a challenge to understand and relate to such information. I’m only 57 and consider myself fortunate, when I check the obituaries each morning, that I’ve yet to find my name there. How are we supposed to perceive a story so outrageous, relative to our knowledge of and experience in the world?
That Methuselah and his contemporaries lived so much longer than we do forces us to suspend disbelief and rely on faith that the words of the Torah are true. We accept that God controls the laws of nature and can adjust them at His will. Hence, bushes that burn but do not consume themselves, seas that split and close at the most convenient times, food that falls from the sky, with a double portion every Friday. And because we cannot fathom such events, God must have reasons for relating them, beyond establishing His bona fides as the Master of the Universe. We get that. You had us at Breishit Bara Elokim.
So, what are we supposed to learn from the story of Methuselah, who lived and worked and loved and fathered children and sinned longer than any human being ever has?
Perhaps, the story is a cautionary tale. Human time, as measured against eternity, is insignificant. 969 years. 120 years. 57 years. 57 minutes. 57 seconds. It’s all the same to God. But what about to us? What will it take for us to appreciate that an anvil is hurtling out of sky to land on each of our heads? That there’s no way to predict when the blow will come? When will we understand that every tick of the clock is precious? That in every moment, the potential exists for us to change ourselves and to change the world?
In my poem, entitled In the Age of Giants, I see Methuselah as a kind of Kohelet-like figure, espousing the same relentlessly depressing line of thought that can be found throughout the 12 chapters of bromides and admonitions, that we read on Sukkoth. Methuselah is hardly a paragon of virtue; he’s seen and done it all. He’s part of the awfulness that has consumed the world; a world in which even the giants—angels living on the earth—have become corrupted and are fallen. And yet, he hopes that his grandson Noah (though more than 500 years old, still a pup to Methuselah), can save the world.
Why does he care? Perhaps, the wizened curmudgeon hopes to ride on Noah’s coattails into eternity. Perhaps, there’s some vestige of goodness within his soul that leads him to hope that the world can experience salvation, even if it’s too late for him. And, then, because Methuselah is ruled by his temporal desires, even at 969 years old, instead of thinking about how he will face God when the end finally comes, he retreats to the world of the senses. Here, he can escape the seeming futility of it all. Here, he finds solace.
In the Age of Giants
Methuselah lived 900 years. Methuselah lived 900 years.
But who calls that livin’ when no gal will give in, to no man
what’s 900 years?
It Ain’t Necessarily So (from Porgy and Bess)
On the day that he died, Methuselah made love.
It was in his head but, nonetheless, it was glorious
to feel 300 again, at the peak of his powers. How fruitful
he’d been. How he had multiplied. And, now, practically
a ghost, he felt the familiar stirring. He had outlived
everyone, but that was no blessing. To watch a world
going mad. The giants fallen. It was hard to see the
point of it all. And, yet, there was solace in touch.
Mouth against mouth. Belly against belly. Limb against
limb. A perfumed hand brushed across his cheek. Or,
was it the scent of lilacs in the wind? The tent was filled
with family, their muffled cries interrupting his dream.
Sodomites. Mercenaries. There to stake their claims.
He knows this because he’s cried the same fake tears.
But, in a corner, his grandson, Noah. Building some
crazy boat, obsessed with animals, but a good boy.
Maybe there’s hope for the world, after all. And, then,
Methuselah shut his eyes and resumed his lovemaking;
crying out his lover’s name with one final, giant breath.