Chayei Sarah: Growing Old, Staying Young

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

"And Sarah lived one hundred years, twenty years and seven years; these are the years of Sarah's life”(source).

A famous rabbinic comment elucidating the triple expression of years teaches that Sarah maintained her stunning beauty, intuitive wisdom and sinless innocence throughout her life. Furthermore, the seemingly superfluous ending of the verse “these are the years of Sarah’s life” teaches, in the words of Rashi, that her years "were all equally good".   

Rav Soloveitchik explains that, for Sarah, these periods of life were not mutually exclusive.  Sarah combined the innocence of childhood, the vigour of young adulthood and the maturity of a developed adult throughout her life, all at the same time. Newborn babies, totally dependent on others for survival, develop complete trust in the nurturing parents who take care of their every need. They learn to see the beautiful world that G-d created, and recognize that all is "very good". The challenges and difficulties that we all eventually face are years away. Their beautiful naiveté is not yet spoiled by the deceit, the lies and corruption that are so inevitably a part of the human experience. In their youthful enthusiasm, as they enter adolescence and early adulthood and begin to understand the challenges of life, many still see the potential of a world at peace where we work together for the benefit of all. But alas, as we grow a little older and come face to face with the world of falsehood that surrounds us, we tend to become more realistic.  We replace idealism with pragmatism; our focus shifts from the world around us to our own personal world. We may lament the loss of our dreams, but feel hopeless and helpless to do anything about it. It is the rare individual who can remain a young child or mature adolescent at heart, even as their body ages. Sarah was such an individual, and it is she who is the founding mother of the Jewish people.

Sarah had another quality that set her apart. While still a child, she had the maturity, the intellectual rigor, and the sophistication of an adult. She was truly “wise beyond her years”. The true greatness of Sarah was not just found in her combination of youthful energy with wisdom gained from a lifetime of experience.  It was in her ability to know when to see things as a child and when it was an adult perspective that was needed; when to trust others and when to display a healthy dose of cynicism.

Rav Soloveitchik beautifully explains that this is the difference between two of our most fundamental mitzvoth, prayer and Talmud Torah. One can truly pray only with the heart of a child. Prayer requires that we surrender ourselves to G-d, with complete trust in the only true Provider. One must be willing (and able) to bare our souls, to cry out to G-d. Faced with needs, we beseech G-d to provide for us. The sophisticated adult, with defense mechanisms in full force, cannot do so. This may help to explain why our generation finds prayer so difficult. Our amazing accomplishments delude us into believing that we are completely in control of the world, stifling our understanding that nothing happens without G-d.

On the other hand, only an adult can really learn Torah. Those qualities that make prayer so effective would render our learning superficial. True Torah study requires intellectual sophistication, in-depth analysis, creative thinking, and the ability to dig deeply for truth, even if it means disagreeing with our great predecessors. Real Torah study does not focus on Midrashic stories about Avraham smashing idols, number games or merely entertaining divrei Torah.

Rav Soloveitchik was fond of saying that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, saved Torah in 19th-century Europe by demonstrating that Talmudic learning could compete with—and surpass—the intellectual rigour offered by the best of the scientific world. The Lithuanian yeshiva world emphasized the depth and complexity of Torah, and many Jews who no longer observed Jewish law continued the most enjoyable of intellectual pursuits, the study of Torah.

It is revealing that, while the Lithuanian world focused on Torah study, the Chassidic world focused on prayer; it seems as if the two are mutually exclusive. It is the rare person who can follow in the footsteps of Sarah Immenu, praying like a child, learning like an adult, with the energy of youth. May we aim to be such a person.