What is it that most people want to become but nobody wants to be? This paradox is no riddle, it is simply a reality of life. In our youth-oriented culture, almost everyone wants to reach old age but no one wants to be old. Consider the elixirs, tinctures, potions, stairmasters, elyptical trainers, and so many other nostrums and contraptions employed to aid in the search for the fountain of youth whereby we hope to forestall and even halt the inexorable march of time.
The tension between growing old and wanting to stay young takes on greater urgency because the aging population today is quite different from that of any other period in history, evidenced by the sheer number of people living beyond retirement age. The 65-74-age category is approximaely eight times larger than it was in 1900; the number of 75-84 year olds is 17 times larger; and the 85-and-up population is nearly 40 times larger. Future projections indicate that by the year 2030, there will be more than 70 million people over the age of 65, and the population aged 85 and over, the group most likely to need health- and long-term care services, also will increase dramatically.
Today, lives no longer conform to past expectations and patterns. Marriage, schooling, career, child bearing, and child rearing are more fluid than ever before. Many do not look or act their chronological age, making necessary new benchmarks for the retired set, a mixture of young-old, old-old, sick-old, well-old, well-off-old, and so forth.
Chayei Sarah was written at a time when growing old was the exception rather than the rule. It is a narrative that bids a reader to pause and consider the prospect of aging and the personal hope that growing old will be gentle and graceful rather than severe and graceless. The text reminds the reader that Sarah was 127 when she died (Genesis 23:1) while Abraham lived to be 175 (Genesis 25:7). Both Sarah and Abraham accomplished their most significant achievements in the latter part of their lives, well past the age that would be considered feasible today. Abraham set out on his fateful journey at God’s command from Haran (in northwest Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq) to “the land that I will show you” at age 75 (Genesis 12:1, 4). When Abraham reached age 90, God revealed Himself to Abraham and promised to make his descendents exceedingly numerous (Genesis 17:4-6). At age 99, Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself (Genesis 17:24). Although, Sarah, at age 90, and Abraham, at age 100, were well past normal child-bearing years, nevertheless, Isaac was born (Genesis 21:2-3). Thus, for Sarah and Abraham, age provided no barrier to accomplishment. They launched themselves onto new pathways at a time when they might have been expected to retire to rocking chairs.
Those who think that growing old is just mind over matter fail to recognize that genes, nutrition, proper care, exercise, and just plain luck cannot be disregarded. Nevertheless, an individual’s attitude toward aging is important. Contrast the comment of one older woman, “I tried being old a couple of years ago and I hated it, so I am never going to do that again,” with that of the 91 year old standing by a grave at the end of a interment service who said to me, “You know, rabbi, it hardly pays for me to go home.”
Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, “I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” “Why shouldn’t you?” she asked. “You look perfectly healthy to me.”
Until this modern age, those who managed to grow old were anomalous; few people lived long enough to prevent leisure time, longed for when young, from becoming a burden when aged.
The Book of Proverbs finds increasing currency in an age when the number of septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, centenarians, and even a sprinkling of supercentenarians (those 110 years old or more) are rapidly increasing: “The gray hair is a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31). By extension, Rabbinic tradition teaches: “ben arba-im labinah, ben chamishim l‘eitzah ... ben sh’monim lig’vurah — at forty one is fit for discernment; at fifty for counsel … at eighty for strength” (Pirkei Avot 5.21). These are not isolated statements about growing old; comparable maxims fill the pages of traditional texts, aphorisms that can be utilized in formulating attitudes about growing old gracefully. The example of Sarah and Abraham’s longevity, and the accomplishments realized during their advanced years provide new ways of thinking about adding meaningful life to extended years, fulfilling the Psalmist’s prayer: “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalms 90:12).
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.
Abraham and Sarah do indeed reach old age with uncommon vigor. After all, they practically have one foot in the grave when they are told to get ready for the maternity ward!
One hundred twenty seven years does seem impossibly old. Consider that this past August, the world’s oldest living person, Auschwitz survivor Israel Kristal, died one month shy of his 114th birthday, and Sarah’s lifespan seems all-the-more remarkable.
Still, Abraham and Sarah are hardly the first or only biblical figures to reach old age. Here are some of the Torah’s renowned geriatrics: there’s Adam, who lived to 930. Noah outlasts Adam by a full 20 years. And Methuselah? He lived to 969. That’s downright ancient!
But what’s amazing is that none of these extraordinary figures is ever described with a critical Hebrew word that appears for the first time in this week’s Torah portion.
That word is zakein, which, generally speaking, means “old.” Genesis 24:1 begins, “Abraham was old (zakein), well advanced in years.” The term comes up again when Abraham’s own son Isaac is dying, and many times over throughout the Hebrew Bible, including at the deathbed scene of King David, which begins this week’s Haftarah: “King David was old, well advanced in years …” (I Kings 1:1).
So what’s the difference? Why do we have these superannuated characters who are never called zakein, “old?” And why do we reserve the term zakein for figures who, while up there in years by any definition, still come nowhere close to the lifespan of Methuselah?
One answer is provided in a Rabbinic interpretation of zakein as referring to “a wise person who knows how to season wisdom with reason and good sense” (paraphrasing the commentary of Pinhas Kehati to Pirkei Avot, 5:21).1 In other words, zakein isn’t so much about chronological age as it is about attaining the qualities of emotional and spiritual maturity.
May we all aspire to attain these innermost qualities of zakein, even if we sometimes understandably wish to avoid the inevitable hardships, heartbreaks, and headaches of getting old.
- Pinhas Kehati, commentator, Pirkei Avot, Seder Nezikin, Mishnah, vol. 4 (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), pp. 185-6
Rabbi Jonathan Blake is senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY.
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 111–132
Haftarah, I Kings 1:1–31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 338−340; Revised Edition, pp. 169−171