A white beard and old age seem to go together. It is not surprising that they share the same cognate in Hebrew; a beard is zakan and old age is zaken. The Torah tells us that Abraham became zaken. Our sages combined the two meanings in a midrash saying that until that time, men did not grow beards. Abraham is the one who prayed that men grow beards and that they grow white as we age.
The Talmud’s stated reason for this prayer was so that Abraham would be distinguishable from his son Isaac who was his perfect resemblance. But why specifically with a beard and why a white beard? Also, every Torah teaching must contain an eternal lesson, what does this teach us?
Many people prefer to go without facial hair. Yet, not very long ago, beards were in fashion. In fact, beards are coming back. Judaism has always encouraged beards and prohibits shaving with a razor. There are Jews who believe that any form of shaving is forbidden.
This is because the beard carries huge mystical significance. The beard is the only hair that grows vertically from above to below, which represents the flow of Divine energy into the world.
G-d’s energy is infinite. There is no way that His entire pool of energy to wash down on us. We would be washed away; flooded and drowned by His energy. Instead, He allows a trickle to flow down to us from above. This trickle is infinitesimal compared to its source, but for us it is plenty. This is represented by the hair follicles in the beard. Each follicle symbolizes a channel of Divine energy. It is a trickle, but that is because it must be. If it were larger, it would overwhelm us.
The follicles hang down vertically representing the direct flow from G-d to us. Life can be complicated and at times we can use some help. We need someone to cut through the red tape and deliver the assistance we need. We pray to G-d, and He responds directly and decisively. These responses are symbolized by the beard.
In fact, we make a point of separating out the strands of our beards. It symbolizes our prayer that each Divine response flow unhindered to its destination.
If a Divine response calls for kindness and gets tangled up in severe judgment, it would be dilute the kindness. Conversely, if a response called for urgency and it got tangled up with serenity, it would be watered down. So, we make a point of separating out the strands of the beard as a symbolic gesture to G-d. Just as our strands each fall in their own line so should Your responses each fall into place.
This explains why Judaism frowns upon cutting the beard. We want G-d’s assistance to reach all the way down to us and not fall short. If we trim the beard, or worse, shave it completely, we declare symbolically that we are good on our own down here on earth and don’t need G-d’s help.
We now return to Abraham’s plea that G-d give people beards. Growing a beard is not only symbolic of G-d largess, but also of our role on earth. We were not placed on earth to enjoy life’s pleasures. Our primary purpose is to bring awareness of G-d to the world. To live as G-d wants us to live and to serve as G-d wants us to serve.
As children, we are given certain allowances, but as we grow older, we need to take responsibility and live up to our purpose. Abraham, who taught the entire world about G-d, wanted to be sure that we don’t forget our personal responsibility. As we grow older and our beard fills in, we remember that our role is not only to receive, but also to channel G-dliness to the world.
Our purpose is to ensure that we leave the world a little holier than we found it. That the people who interact with us, walk away more fulfilled and more aware of G-d than they were before. It is our role to be a light unto the nations and a teacher to our children. To ensure that G-d’s presence is not absent from the world. That rather than G-d being above, and our world below, there is a direct channel that reaches all the way to the top and extends all the way to the bottom.
The beard symbolizes all that.
That is all fine and good, but why did Abraham want the beard to grow white as we age? What was the mystical purpose behind silver hair and the wizened look we develop with age?
Scientists and artists have long argued over white and black. To a scientist, black is the absence of color and as you add light, you add color, until you reach white which is the absorption of all colors. Artists will tell you the reverse is true. You begin with a white base and add pigments until you reach black.
Judaism considers white the essence of all things. This is why white is the color of purity. Accordingly, the angels, heaven, and G-d are all represented by white.
When we are young and energetic, when our body is vital and strong, our beard is black. As the body gives way and succumbs to old age, the black turns slowly to grey, silver, then white.
The message is that though our beard grows when we are young, which means that our mission to fill the world with awareness of G-d begins at a young age, we are also driven in youth by personal agendas and even ego. It is not a pure dedication. We get sidetracked by the many pursuits of youth.
As we grow older, more mature, more settled, and more wizened, our energy declines, but our dedication and zeal can grow purer. The older we are, the more responsible we become to set an example for the next generation. We can’t compromise on the purity of our mission, and we can’t let our personal agenda distract us.
Our beard, symbolic of our mission to bring heaven down to earth, grows white—pure and true.
The white beard reminds us to focus on the core of existence, the root essence of all things—G-d—and dedicate ourselves humbly to His service. Our primary role is to mentor our students, children, and grandchildren, and show them the proper way. To mentor them, we must be worthy of their respect. We must live in a way that makes us worthy of mentorship.
This is the reason behind Abraham’s plea, and this is the message to us all. G-d gave us a body and a soul—a sliver of heaven in a handful of earth. He did that because He wants us to marry heaven and earth in a way that brings awareness of G-d—the core root of all existence—to all of humanity.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.