“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years: the years of Sarah’s life” (Beresheet 23:1). “And Abraham was old and coming in days…”
In this parasha we encounter for the first time the concept of old age and the death of two righteous people who had lived full and meaningful lives. Abraham and Sarah had both been prolific in their service to G-d, and the description of their lives contains very valuable lessons on life, old age, and the uses of time.
As Rav Hirsch points out, this is the only place in the Bible that the age of a woman is recorded. Apart from his explanation for this anomaly, we can see that a woman’s vanity may not be something new after all. In this verse, the age of Sarah is described in a strange form. Instead of saying “one hundred twenty-seven years,” as the Torah normally puts it, in this case her age is split into the hundreds, the tens, and the single numbers, namely “one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” This peculiar style surely calls for an explanation.
The recurrence of the word “years” (shanah) after each number comes to emphasize that each segment is a different period in her life. In other words, as R. Eliahu Mizrachi explains, the seven years are not the period at the end of her life but rather they represent the first seven years from her birth date. Similarly, the twenty represent not the years after 100 but rather the first 20 years of her life. Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Beresheet Rabba 58:1) explains that each segment of her life was reckoned on its own. Sarah, at 100 years of age, was as a 20-year-old in respect to her sins; and at 20, she was as beautiful as when she was seven. What is the meaning of this division?
The age at which a person can be found guilty of a crime is at 20 years. Therefore, that at the age of 100 she was as at 20, means that she was as guiltless at 100 as she had been at 20. The reckoning of her 20-year-old stage being as when she was seven means that her physical beauty was constant throughout her life. This was evident from the story of her being kidnapped by Abimelech on account of her ravishing looks.
This teaches us that each period of a person’s life has its own meaning and each must be cherished for the opportunities it presents. Our generation tends to appreciate youth above all, and it discards old age as a sad burden to carry. The Torah’s view is not so. On the contrary, we are told to honor the hoary head and to give it respect. The hero in the Jewish perspective is the zaken, the “elder,” and there is no search for the fountain of eternal youth as in other peoples’ myths. Nevertheless, each period of life must be appraised on its own. The opportunities afforded to us in our youth usually do not come later in life. The wisdom achieved in old age is the product of experience and long life that cannot be reached by the young and the callow. Some people worship childhood and youth for its blissful ignorance, and long to return to that period in their lives. The Torah, on the other hand, wants us to move always forward, to give each age its due and to appreciate the development of each time.
My grandson asked me once, “What would you rather be,
a child or a grandfather?”
I answered that I preferred to be a grandfather,
because otherwise I would not have a grandson like him
That is the meaning of the phrase at the end of this verse, “the years of Sarah’s life.” Sarah lived every day; she lived in each and every one of them and did not waste her time. The poet Rudyard Kipling put this well in his poem, “If”: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” Each moment is precious and each has its value if we only learn to give the time its due and worth. No day is unimportant, no time is valueless. Each day has its own challenges and it gives us a new opportunity to ascend spiritually. About Abraham, the Torah tells us, “He was old and coming in days.” The expression “coming in days” is the literal translation of the Hebrew “ba bayamim,” which could be translated as “advanced in age.” However, the expression “coming in days” helps us understand another dimension of life. Living is not just letting time pass by, but rather it means to live each day fully and to carry on the lessons of each day into the next and into the next and so on till the end of our time. He accumulated the achievements of each day until he reached his old age. The righteous transform each day of their material lives into spiritual accomplishments.
Nothing is more precious than life, and yet we allow it to be squandered and slip away. In fact, sometimes we even let time pass into nothing, as when we say, “To kill time.” There is a story of a man who came into a town, and as he passed by a cemetery, he noticed that all the headstones showed that the ages of the people buried there were all very young. Shocked by this, he inquired what illness had attacked this town. The people of the community explained that the people of the town lived as long as anywhere else but that they had a custom of recording only the time they spent serving Hashem, the prayer times, the Torah study, and all other mitzvot as years of life. These are the years truly lived. The Vilna Gaon kept a minute-by-minute record of any time wasted away from studying Torah and wept bitterly over time lost.
Abraham and Sarah lived full lives, each day filled with meaning and achievement. They did not bemoan the loss of youth, but rather experienced each stage in life to its fullest capacity, and took with them to the next stage all the wisdom and all the joy they had accumulated in the previous stage. My grandson, always eager to have a play partner, asked me once, “What would you rather be, a child or a grandfather?” I answered that I preferred to be a grandfather, because otherwise I would not have a grandson like him. In this brief conversation I understood all the lessons of my life and the privilege that I had if I would only learn from them and be able to carry them with me to the next stage, until he last day of my life and beyond.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.