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Abraham and Sarah: Saga of the First Jewish Couple

The secret of Abraham's youthful vigor was Sarah

"And Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things." (Gen. 24:1)

The rabbis wondered why the above passage stated "Abraham was now old," when the Torah text had previously informed us that Abraham was already advanced in years at the time he had left Haran to go out to Canaan, and when Sarah bore him a son.

If, as the rabbis believed, Torah was never redundant, what insight could this restatement convey? If Abraham had lived a good many years but was not yet old, what suddenly had changed him? To understand, we must read the preceding verse, which tells of Sarah's death. The rabbis suggest that the onset of his old age came abruptly with the loss of his wife--"old age leaped upon him."

Our sages cite four causes of premature aging: Fear or anxiety, the vexations of child rearing, a bad marriage, and the alarms of war. Abraham had experienced all kinds of adversity. He was drawn into a dynastic battle in an effort to save his nephew, Lot. On the marriage front, he faced the ordeal of casting out Hagar to appease Sarah. His son Ishmael, whom the rabbis called "a wild ass of a man," gave him plenty of aggravation. And what could have been more agonizing and fearsome than preparing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac? Thus, Abraham endured war, marital distress, parenting problems, and terrible anxiety--any of which would have prematurely aged another man--yet the patriarch retained his youthful vigor. Old age "leapt upon him" only after Sarah died. From this the rabbis deduced that Sarah had kept her husband young, sheltering him from the ill effects of life's ravaging blows.

The sages' reasoning becomes clear if we understand Sarah's role as Abraham's partner as well as his wife. Just as Abraham in affirming his faith in God converted others to Judaism, so according to the rabbis, did Sarah; he converted the men, she the women. It was said that Sarah had an even greater gift of prophesy than her husband. When Abraham was troubled about sending away Hagar and Ishmael, he was told by God to accede to Sarah's request because her power of prophecy transcended his.

The partnership between the first Jewish husband and wife was not perfect. Abraham misled Sarah about his plan to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Learning of the Akeidah and the near death of her son, she died of shock.

Scripture portrays Abraham and Sarah as real people. Abraham courageously follows God's call, yet his fear of the Pharaoh and King Abimelech induces him to lie about the status of his wife (in both cases, he identifies her as his sister). Sarah is willing to arrange for Hagar to bear her husband a child, but later out of jealousy orders Abraham to cast them out. When Abraham receives God's call to go forth, Sarah faithfully joins her husband's religous quest, but when she receives her own revelation about the forthcoming birth of a son, she laughs in disbelief because of the couple's advanced age. God reports her reaction to Abraham but discreetly omits Sarah's remark that her husband is too old. This divine reticence, according to the rabbis, teaches us that to maintain shalom bayit (harmony in the home), even God would bend the truth.

Thus we have much to gain from studying our first couple. They worked together as spouses, and as partners in a holy alliance with God. And their love for each other kept them young.

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