Torah Reading for Week of November 16-November 22, 2008
“Bring Your Days with You”
By Rabbi J.B. Sacks
AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought
Old age takes away from us what we have inherited and gives us what we have earned. (Gerald Brenan, “Life,” Thoughts in a Dry Season, 1978)
So often when we speak of getting old, we focus on the first half of Gerald Brenan’s dictum. We concentrate on our necessary losses, what “old age takes away from us”: energy, memory, vitality. We worry about our ability to remain independent and our quality of life. We wish to remain pain free, and we pray that our increasing years do not impose increasing burdens on our loved ones.
Our Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, provides us with a framework that helps us to focus upon the second half of Brenan’s insight, that old age “gives us what we have earned.” One of the last significant acts of Abraham is to commission his servant, to seek out a wife for his son Isaac. This section begins with the announcement (24:1) that Avraham zaken, ba bayamim. Abraham was now old, advanced in years.
The Torah uses not one but two phrases to describe where Abraham is in his life: zaken, “old” and ba bayamim, translated as “advanced in years.” Tthe latter phrase, however, literally means “comes with days.” The Torah is telling us that Abraham gave constant attention to his spiritual focus and spiritual direction. This is what makes his coming to age particularly worthy of note: He made each day count for something. He was able to stoke his spiritual core and live out his vision on a daily basis. He brought the fruits of each day with him into the next day, building upon them, so that his soul could be suffused with compassion, with his faith. This is why the Torah uses the particular word zaken for “old” among all the conceivable word choices, for it is traditionally understood as an acronym for ze kanah, he acquired. Because of this way to manage his life, Abraham was able to acquire much: a healthful perspective, an emotional depth, sensitivity, compassion and wisdom. His was the fulfillment of the psalmist (90:12), Help us to be intimately present to make our days count, and we shall then bring to the world a wise heart.
The blessing of old age then is not merely the fact of one’s survival, but, rather, that the emotional and spiritual growth that one has achieved places one in a tremendous position to give back to the world with the renewed creativity that such growth brings. The deeper the life lived, the deeper one’s potential contribution to the world, since one is more developed in all the ways that matter for a truly rich life, spiritually conceived.
Abraham here is not serving as an ideal but a model. All of us can grow to contribute from our hearts. All of us can grow in wisdom, compassion and nobility. One study of centenarians suggests that what they have in common is staying active, a spirit of optimism and a love of life. Is such a combination not a description of Abraham, without the theological language? And does this not point us to the path that Abraham forged but which bears our name as well?
This concept of not merely paying daily attention to one’s inner life but charting a path for continuous growth as affording the realization of true blessing is contained in a spiritual understanding of the last half of the verse: vAdonai beirach et-Avraham bakol, and the Holy One blessed Abraham with everything. Most commentators assume that the “everything” with which Abraham was blessed refers to material blessing, economic wealth. But I understand these words to mean that HaShem blessed Abraham with “every one” of those days—for each and every day brought blessing to Abraham because he lived with such a passion for the good life, which consisted of an abiding relationship with G-d, a love for those of his extended household, an ability to touch others, and a concern for the welfare of all persons.
May we live to grow, so that we can grow to live.
May we chart our path and forge ahead on it daily.
May we find that at the end of each day we have gained and integrated
some spiritual ideal, moral truth or emotional message.
May we remain filled with optimism and brim over with hope.
May our love of life translate into concerted action.
May we earn the status of advanced age.
And even at the end of our life, may we state,
and may others write about us,
that we were ba bayamim,
that we brought one day with us into the next,
and that with the accumulated riches of those days
we were blessed—and became a blessing—because of it.