Thoughts on parashat Chayei Sarah.
What is time? Time is a measure of the variability of all things. Although this definition may not be sufficient, for example, in astrophysics, it is completely sufficient for our human, earthly perspective and living experience.
Life is reborn in cycles. Our imagination, dominated by Euclidean geometry, often gives us a linear vision of time. It is enough to “superimpose one on the other” to get possibly the most adequate vision of time: time is a spiral. This vision corresponds with our everyday experience: each day brings us something new and even if we experience the same things cyclically, the experience is slightly different each time. The same dinner, made according to the same recipe again, will taste slightly different.
Of course, for all these new experiences there comes an end which is ultimately marked by death. The Torah portion this week describes the death of the mother and the father of our nation(s) – Sarah and Abraham. According to midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31) Sarah died of despair after learning that Abraham had murdered their only son Isaac by sacrificing him on Mount Moriah:
When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan(1) became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham. What did he do? He went to Sarah and asked: “Did you hear what happened in the world?” She answered, “No.” He said, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.” Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died. Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.
This midrash sees Sarah’s death as tragic: she died of despair after hearing Satans’ lie. It is interesting, however, that Abraham’s death is quite opposite of Sarah’s:
This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.
Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and content. This is the kind of death we all desire. Is there Jewish wisdom that would help us to “achieve this goal?”.
Yes. Woven into the fabric of Judaism there are many views and values and ideas that help us achieve this contented death. I will try to summarize some of these ideas.
Perhaps first is teaching the younger generation to have respect for the elder generation which starts with honoring parents (Ex 20:12), but also all elders in society, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:32)
We are commanded to respect our elders even if they no longer possess their mental capacities. Traditionally, the source for this teaching is the Ten Commandment tablets that Moses shattered, which were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. It teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually “broken.”
The older generations should be credited for what they have done – and they have done quite a bit: they built the entire world in which you live. This awareness is especially salient for those that experience a life of comfort and luxury. Your elders are those that made it happen through their hard work. While there are countless examples one only must think of the state of Israel. At any time, for any reason, we always NOW have a safe haven. This miracle is on the backs of our elders that went to Israel and moved rocks and dug through mud to make this thriving democracy. Tell me, doesn’t just thinking about them bring you deep joy and gratitude? Respect your elders.
While we are commanded to respect our elders – we also have a responsibility as human beings at all stages to do whatever we can to stay mentally clear and physically fit in order to guide “our” next generation. This commandment can be seen as a two-way street – I will nurture my mental faculties in order to share and inform your generation and you must agree to listen, respect and ultimately do the same to your next generation.
If you are a mid-age person, learn humility and to accept the changes time brings. You can still play sports at any age. You can still be fit and beautiful at any age. But being 60 you won’t beat a 23 years old athlete or 20 years old girl in a beauty contest. This requires you to adapt to changes, but nevertheless, you can thrive. The remedy to defying aging is to constantly revise your habits and customs and not let them dictate completely your lifestyle. This, in its purest form, will prevent ‘spiritual aging’, which only accelerates physical aging, which can happen even in one’s youth. As Baal Shem Tov said once: “Do not forsake me in old age”: let not old age and stagnation rule my habits and customs. While aging brings less physical strength and a slower body, it also brings wisdom, which is a virtue and a blessing.
If you are not an older person, yet, you should remember that mental decline in old age is primarily preventable. You just need to keep working on your intellectual capabilities early enough and keep doing it throughout your life. Then, when you retire, your mind will be clear and you will finally have time to read all the books you have always wanted but have never had time for.
“He removes the speech of men of trust and takes away the sense of the elders.” But when it comes to aged scholars, it is not so. On the contrary, the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: “With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.” (Mishnah Kinnim 3:6)
And you will not feel irrelevant and forced to hide away from the world during your “slow years”, which you shouldn’t do, because by doing it you don’t fulfill the purpose of the wisdom that you spent years accumulating and do a disservice to the younger generation that needs and relies on your wisdom.
When our bodies start to age – and this starts pretty early, around 25, we should start growing our spirit. The sooner the better. If we do that, we will have the capacity to overcome the fears of time and be able to be happy and content during our last days. We can grow our spirit in many ways: by learning, by doing moral actions, involving ourselves in intellectual activities, studying and performing art, being involved in social actions, charity and altruism and generally doing what is good beyond your own good.
Spirit, over time, takes some responsibilities of the body. As long as bodies are the dominant forces to animate themselves, they are to a large extent subjected to biology and all kinds of natural laws. Over time this determinism decreases (except time when you are sick) and that’s good news because we are becoming more and more free in our actions, including moral actions, and more aware of everything that determines our actions and their consequences. Talmud delineates the different stages of life: age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the contemporary, secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is – generally and unfortunately – regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!
You should never stop caring about your body and you should never stop caring for your spirit. We grow the spirit in the body and when the body becomes more and more fragile the spirit shall take over the care of the body. If you do all of that, time will not be your enemy, it will be on your side!
Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness. (Proverbs 16:31)
This d’var Torah was commissioned by Beit Polska
– Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland.
(1) Satan in Judaism is not a physical being ruling the underworld, rather, in the Torah, the word Satan indicates “accuser,” “hinderer” or “tempter.” Satan is therefore more an illusory obstacle in one’s way – such as temptation and evil doings – keeping one from completing the responsibilities of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Satan is the evil inclination to veer off the path of righteousness and faithfulness in God. (Jewish Virtual Library)