“Young at Heart”
By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
‘And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.’ (Genesis 18.1)
It is not strange to find an old man, ninety-nine years of age, sitting at the entrance of a tent, soaking up the day’s heat. For such a man would appear to be resting. The midday siesta is an ancient custom still observed in many lands. All are entitled to a little respite from toil under the sun. Why should this man be any different? (Shadal on Gen. 18:1; II Samuel 4:5)
But this elderly man is no ordinary man, for he is our Patriarch Abraham—who left the substance and security of his native country for an elusive promise and an ethereal dream. Indeed, this is the husband of Sarah, the rescuer of Lot, the binder of Isaac, and the father of faith. Far be it to imagine such a man dozing in the middle of the day!
Naturally, some of our Sages taught otherwise. Abraham was not resting so much as recuperating, for he was circumcised just three days before. (Cf. Gen. 17:24) Thus G-d appears, so to speak, ‘to visit the infirmed.’ Moreover, the strange messengers that Abraham entertains in the opening scenes of this week’s portion may have been partly sent to distract Abraham from residual pain. (Rashi 18:1; Cf. Baba Metziah 86b)
Either way, what unfolds is as incongruous as snow in Los Angeles or dolphins with feathers and wings. Lifting his eyes and sighting these three strangers in the distance, Abraham rouses himself from his afternoon lethargy, from the weariness of age, or from incapacitating pain and he begins to run. He dashes toward these travelers to entice them with promises of wash-water, good food, and shade. He then races to the tent, to Sarah, and harries her with breathless instructions to make cakes. “Make ready, quickly, three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make cakes!” (Gen. 18:6)
It’s perhaps the funniest scene in Genesis…Sarah certainly knows how to make cakes! She is ninety years old. (There is little she doesn’t know.) But before Sarah can retort, Abraham has darted away and gone ‘running to slaughter a calf.’ (18:7)
Where does Abraham get the energy? How does a man of ninety-nine, flit and fly like a boy of nine? Never mind the incongruity of the very old acting like the very young—is Abraham’s behavior even possible?!
Many rationalists of the Middle Ages argued that the entire episode of Abraham and the three messengers took place in a vision or dream. (Guide of the Perplexed II.42) Thus Abraham, the centenarian, never ran about like a kindergartener at recess; instead, what occurred took place in his mind’s eye, as ‘he dozed soundly in the afternoon sun.’ (Radak 18:1; Cf. Ibn-Kaspi Num. 22:23)
Though rationalists have a habit of stripping religion of the otherworldly and the mythical—not always to our liking—in this case, the rationalists may have done us a service. For if dreams say anything about our souls, Abraham’s dream tells us that he is young at heart. He dreams himself running about in youthful exuberance, chiding his wife like a recent bridegroom in a new home. His bones may be weary, but his spirit races…his soul skips between the tents and terebinths of Mamre.
I leave you with a few words of W.B. Yeats:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hand and sing, and louder sing…
(Sailing to Byzantium – 1928)