chayei sarah 88.
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PARASHA: HAYYEI SARAH
"And Abraham was old. He came into his days, and the Lord blessed Abraham with everything" (Genesis 24:1).
The progress of medical science has challenged every community with providing proper care for its aged. Yet I think of the High Holy Day services, when congregants recite the ancient prayer: "Do not cast us aside, O God, at the time of our old age."
My maternal grandmother interpreted the words to mean: "Do not throw me into old age" - do not make me suddenly sick and dependent. Get me used to the aging process slowly, gracefully and graciously. And although we all pray to live long, we also fear those twilight years and the discomfort they often bring.
What can we glean from this week's Torah reading?
The Ramban (Nahmanides) explains that Abraham goes on to administer an oath to his servant Eliezer that he go to Abraham's birthplace and bring back a suitable wife for Isaac. It is necessary for him to send a messenger/agent for this most sensitive task because the patriarch himself was afraid that he might die before completing it.
The Ramban explains that "he came into his days" means Abraham was already marking time in days, sensing that the end was approaching. Between the lines of this commentary lies a picture of an old age devoid of strength, devoid of anticipation and devoid of future plans. Indeed, an old age with all the poignancy of a setting sun, or the closing curtain on the last act of a play.
The Zohar gives another spin to the words "came into his days." After a human being's sojourn on earth, his soul ascends to heaven along with each of the days he has spent in this world; those days comprise the garment in which his soul is clad. The days on which he sinned cannot serve as a covering; woe unto that individual's soul whose garment has gaping holes, or - even worse - who has no garment whatsoever. In Abraham's case, the Bible testifies that "he came into his days [in the other world]" since God blessed him with righteousness every day - a fully complete garment awaiting him in the world to come. (Zohar Vayehi 124)
This interpretation urges each of us to live so as not to be embarrassed when we arrive at the true and eternal world. The Talmud records an incident in which a number of captive women were freed and a place had to be found for them until a ship could come to bring them home. The community placed them in the attic of Rabbi Natan, a great sage who lived alone but who was known for his piety and scholarship. In the middle of the night, the rabbi awoke with a start and began scrambling up the ladder to the attic. Suddenly he began to scream, "Fire! Fire!"
All his neighbors and students came to the rescue, thoroughly confused when they found not even a wisp of smoke. "Aren't you ashamed to have gotten us up for no reason in the middle of the night?" the fire chief asked.
"The fire was within me," responded the rabbi. "It is far better to be ashamed before you in this world than to be ashamed in the world to come."
I WOULD like to suggest a third interpretation, one which emphasizes the positive and even glorious aspect of old age. The Midrash Tanhuma comments on the biblical verse we have cited that Abraham actually prayed for old age. A young individual does not live a life of days; he thinks in terms of a career and a bank account, using days as a means to an end, a time when his dreams will be realized. An elderly individual has the luxury of truly living in the present, of enjoying each day, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. He can allow himself to benefit from the present, to look upon what has been accomplished, to enjoy the present-day relationships from which he can still benefit. He can even correct past transgressions and heal hurt feelings.
Indeed, he has an opportunity to repair that which has been broken. When we only look ahead, we seldom have either the time or the energy to look behind, and pick up what has fallen by the wayside; during our twilight years, when one perforce lives day by day, it becomes possible to pick up many fallen pieces.
"Fortunate is the old age which repairs the sins of our youth." (B.T. Succa 53a)
May the Almighty grant us the wherewithal and the wisdom to make the most out of every stage of life, and rather than count the days that have left us, make the most of each day we have left.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.