If not now, when? Abraham teaches us about old age

Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and Hashem blessed Abraham with everything. (Breishit 24:1).

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, | updated: 08:54

Judaism Jewish men of Chasidic Nadvorna dynasty carry Torah scroll on Simchat Torah
Jewish men of Chasidic Nadvorna dynasty carry Torah scroll on Simchat Torah
צילום: INN:RS

Not long ago, another weekly began posting my parasha essays.  When I was shown the publication, I realized they were using a photo of me from when I was at least twenty years younger.  I looked at the photograph in amazement, recognizing the image but hardly knowing the person. “That’s not me,” I said. “There is no ziknah.”  I quickly had my wife take a new photograph of me, showing how I look now, full of my passing days…

What?  I wanted to show myself looking older rather than younger?  Had I lost my senses? At a time when people spend billions to hide or camouflage old age with face lifts, plastic surgery, Grecian formulas, Botox…?  What person in their right mind wants to show their age?

Abraham, that’s who.  

There is a fascinating Yalkut Shimoni teaching that Abraham prayed for ziknah, old age. Until he did, old age had had never been mentioned in the Torah, even amongst all those seniors who lived a life span of hundreds of years!  Not once were any of them referred to as “old”. Then, it was natural to live a long vigorous, and youthful life until, boom, it ended.  It was Abraham who prayed for “old age”.  

Abraham and Yitzchak had a problem – they both looked dynamic and vigorous.  That’s a problem? you wonder. Yes, it is. Abraham argued that if father and son came into a room or a city people should know whom to honor!  For that to happen, the father must “look his age”.  

God agreed.  “By your life, this phenomenon will begin with you!” Indeed, it is only in our parasha Chayei Sarah that Torah uses ziknah, old age, as a descriptive.  “And Abraham was old...” 

The Mussar movement’s greatest teachers are honored for their age.  “The Alter from Slabodka”, the “Alter from Kelm” speak to this honor.  We use alter derisively – “that alter… ”.  Not Mussar.  “The Old Man from Kelm” is afforded great honor and regard.

Abraham’s insistence that there be ziknah in the world was certainly about more than simply differentiating father from son.  He wanted to look old, yes. But he wanted to look old because he wanted to be old.  For in that oldness there was honor and respect.

Rav Yissochor Frand cites Rav Shmishon Pincus Z’L’s profound insight. If one had an accomplished life and can look back with pride and his years, he is not at all apprehensive at his years winding down.  A person can look back at a life of accomplishments and worthy achievement, ready to march on to eternity. But those with little to show for their decades of life, their only consolation is the future yet in front of them, which is fine when you are thirty or forty… but at sixty or seventy?   

If you have little to show for your life at an advanced age then it is no wonder you do everything in your power to try and appear young, to appear you have “more time”.  

You don’t.  

Abraham had no such problem.  Abraham was bah b’yamim.  The Sfat Emet says this means that he was able to account for all his days; he did not lose a single day of his life.  His days were all equally worthwhile, filled with meaning and productivity so that when he looked back, contemplating life’s end, he had nothing to be upset about.   His was a life lived. Therefore, he asks for ziknah.

But there is even more to Abraham’s request for ziknah.  Sefer Vayedaber Moshe explains that it is well known that in one’s youth, one focuses on the body, expending time and effort to ensure that all the body’s needs and desires are gratified. As one ages, and the body slows down, the inevitable shift is from body to soul; to the power of the spirit rather than the delight of the body.  

Our bodies reflect that shift.  If one looks the same at seventy as at thirty, what reminder is there that time is moving on?  What alarm rings telling one, “time is running out to focus on things that matter?” So, Abraham argued if God were to crown a person with ziknah, he will be aware of his ultimate destiny and seek to improve his spirituality.   

Ziknah, Abraham argued, can be the greatest motivator to seek and attain greater heights in life.  

Ziknah is a wakeup call.  

 And yet… if this “ziknah alarm clock” is so critically important why didn’t God create it at the beginning, at Creation?   To ask that question, we must then also ask, “ziknah for whom?” 

There were righteous people before Abraham – Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem – but their righteousness was private, affecting no one but themselves.  Not so Abraham. He spread awareness of God and His ways to one and all. Rav Eliyahu Dessler notes that it was Abraham after all, the Ish Hachesed, who epitomized the best in chesed and kindness to others, who requested that man’s appearance too prompt others to show the extra respect, deference and derech eretz to those who have aged.  That too is a manifestation of chesed!

Ziknah is meaningless in a world where a person feels no sense of responsibility for others.  No one prior to Abraham was sufficiently motivated to reach out to others. No one therefore needed to look old. 

Ziknah for whom?  First, for Abraham who reached out to all.  His physical existence wedded with his neshama’s mission.  That’s aging.  Our Sages teach that Zaken (zayin, kuf, nun) is the abbreviation of Zeh kana chochmah – one who has acquired wisdom.  In Judaism, acquiring wisdom means sharing that wisdom; it means teaching and inspiring others. 

Is it any wonder that the elderly love to tell stories?


On his 80th birthday, the writer Somerset Maugham said, “There are many virtues in growing old….” he paused, glanced around, hemmed and hawed and then, after a long, awkward silence, continued, “I’m just trying to think what they are.”  

But there are many virtues in growing old. Possibly the greatest is growing lovely, growing old, as Karle Wilson Baker suggested in her poem, “Let Me Grow Lovely”.  But not only growing lovely, but growing in love for life itself and all-in-which-life-dwells. As aging wine improves in quality, so may passing years enrich our aging. Let us “so many fine things do.”

All fine and good you say, but with old age comes the inevitability of death.  And that… well, certainly that is not something to look forward to.

When the Almighty finished creating the sixth day, the Torah says, “It was very good.” Not just good like the rest of the days, but very good. What made it so good?  One answer our sages give is the creation of death because, they explain, it makes us real with life.  It reminds us that we can’t keep procrastinating; if we want to accomplish something we better do it now. Although no one knows how much life he actually has, as he gets older, he certainly has less!

* * *

Several weeks ago, on Simchat Torah, I davened in a shul with little protocol.  When it came time for distributing the hakafot, the first hakafah was accorded to the rav and the kohanim. And who next? The gabbai announces in Yiddish, “All those with white beards, please come up for your hakafah.” 

I was lucky. At this shul, the white beard was synonymous with priority, with respect. Ziknah makes clear life’s priorities.  If we merit ziknah, we embrace it rather than run from it.

Abraham merited his ziknah.  I pray I merited the honor of the hakafah.

 





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