Chayei Sarah (literally, "the life of Sarah") begins as Abraham buries his late, beloved wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, in the area of present-day Hebron. Immediately after her burial in chapter 23, the biblical text moves right along to Abraham's next task: that of ensuring the next generation's establishing its appropriate familial patterns. He charges his chief servant (probably Eliezer, mentioned in Genesis 15:2) with finding a wife for his son Isaac; this quickly leads to one of the more famous arranged marriage stories of our biblical tradition.
Sandwiched between the funeral and the future is a short phrase the Torah employs to describe Abraham in his old age (Genesis 24:1): "And Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way." While many, including Abraham, achieve the title of "old" (zakein) in the Bible, the particular words "well advanced in years," (ba bayamim, literally "coming along in the days") only appear in connection with Abraham and a few other great leaders of our people: only Sarah (Genesis 18:11), Joshua (Joshua 13:1 and 23:1) and David (I Kings 1:1) earn this title. Such selective application of words like these triggers commentator attention, and provides an opportunity for discussion of the unique qualities shared amongst Abraham and these other key figures.
One sixteenth century commentator with roots in Adrianople and Salonika remarked on the inner meaning contained in these words. In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Torat Moshe, Rabbi Moses Alshech (d. circa 1593, in Safed) reads the passage in this most creative way:
"And Abraham was old, well advanced in age [literally, coming along in the days] . . ." He came with all his days-all were complete, without defect or lack, full of content and life. And this is [what is meant by what is written in Genesis 25:7] "these are the days of the years of Abraham's life. . . "-that is, that he lived with all of his days. And, similarly, about Sarah it is said [in Genesis 23:1]: "the years of the life of Sarah"-that all of her years were years of life. They were upright and their years were upright.
Abraham, to the Alshech, was not just a garden-variety older man who had lived a long life. Instead, he was to be respected not simply for the duration of his years on the earth, but also for the particular quality of what he did with his allotted moments of life. Abraham distinguished himself by ensuring that all his days were complete, without defect or lack, full of content and life. The implication is that Abraham's (or Sarah's, Joshua's, David's; or in essence, anyone's) greatness lies not in simple longevity, but in the use of every precious moment to its greatest effect. It is in making every second count, and using each one in upright, fully developed ways, that we become great.
One of the great thinkers of the early modern period combined this thought with a midrashic statement and an idea from the Zohar, to extend it to its logical end. The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, known in Hebrew as Ha-Gra) who lived from 1720-1797, made the following insightful comment on the use of this term in Genesis:
Rabbi Aha said: you have a person who is in "old age" but not "in the days," or "in the days" but not in "old age," but here [with Abraham] you have a person who has "old age" corresponding to "days" and "days" corresponding to "old age." (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 59:6) It is possible to clarify this according to what is brought in the Zohar about this verse (Genesis 47:29), "When Israel's time to die drew near . . ." When a person dies, all his days come for an accounting before the Holy and Blessed One, to show the measure of the tzaddik in that not one day passed of his years without Torah and mitzvot. This is not so for the reshaim, (evil ones), whose days hide themselves and are ashamed to come close before the Holy and Blessed One. And this is as they said: "you have a person who has 'old age,' " that is to say he is a guilty older person without 'days' to come for him, for all his life was in sin and evildoing and his days hide themselves from coming before God. And you have a proper and pious person, and his days come to testify to his completeness before God, but he does not come after a long life for he died in his youth. But Abraham lengthened [his] days, and came before God with [all of] them.
Such a picture of the end of life is enough to make us seriously reconsider our choices. According to the Vilna Gaon, the young and innocent who perish have one advantage, for their deeds are pure and these deeds come to speak before God on behalf of the deceased. For those of us who are somewhat older, the challenge is far greater. Merely imagining the scene of all our days and actions parading before God should give us pause and, ultimately, provide sincere motivation to live life better.
Combining the Alshech's and the Vilna Gaon's words above, we come to a message of significant beauty that alights on the simple words ba bayamim. We who are given the gift of life, no matter how short or long it happens to be, do best by imbuing its every moment with meaningful actions that are complete, whole, and innocent. If we can have the strength to do so (and it is far from easy), then we, too, can one day face death with deeds that speak to our life's goodness and the way we lived it well. Any steps we take along this path will help us grow to be more like Abraham and Sarah, Joshua or David. Not perfect, of course, but worthy of being remembered with favor by our people for many years to come.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College?Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.