The Crown of Aging (Parashat Chayei Sarah)

The Crown of Aging (Parashat Chayei Sarah)

The act of aging comes with much trepidation and our tradition understands this fear of growing old. King David’s plea, for example, rings out in the book of Psalms, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (Psalm 71:9). Our ancient sages knew that ageism is real. Too often we write off those who are older. We mistakenly watch a person’s body slow with age and make assumptions about their mind as well.  We don’t understand that age is relative.

To combat this assumption, our Rabbis go out of their way to uphold models of youth within the elderly community. They imagine our fore-mother Sarah, for example, entering old age with grace and vigor. Picking up on an abnormality in the grammar of first verse of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, they tell us that Sarah’s years never matched her spirit. They understood the line in our Torah that literally reads, “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah” (Gen. 23:1) as meaning that when Sarah was one hundred years she had the purity of character of a twenty year old, and when she was twenty she had the innocence and beauty of a seven-year old child (Gen. Rabbah 58:1). The reason, they believe, that the Torah does not simply say that Sarah died at the age of "one-hundred-and-twenty-seven" was to nod to this hidden teaching and break our preconceptions about aging.

Last week, I wrote about a fascinating Midrash about Abraham and aging:

Until Abraham there was no old age; whoever wished to speak to Abraham would speak to Isaac, and the reverse. Thereupon he prayed, and old age came into existence, as it is written, “And Abraham was old and well-stricken in age”(Genesis 24:1) (Talmud, Bava Metzia 87a).

Though I spoke about this text as Abraham’s plea to ease the trauma of almost sacrificing his son, there is perhaps something else at play in his desire to appear older. Reflecting on the Abraham’s act of aging, our ancient Rabbis quote two teachings. First, they remind us that the ultimate image of age in the Bible is actually divine. Appearing in a vision to the prophet Daniel toward the end of the Bible, God is described as having, “hair on His clean wool (Daniel 7:9). They next quote a teaching from the book of Proverbs that declared, “The crown of splendor is old age” (Prov 16:31).

For our Rabbis, aging was a gift, not a burden. People often frown at the depiction of God in the book of Daniel as being too human and too male. Yet, the power in this image is not God’s gender but God’s age. God, who is called in the book of Daniel the “Ancient of Days” carries the wisdom of universe. God’s grey hair is a mark of experience and seeing it sends a clear message that God has seen the past and learned from it.

Our rabbis believed that Abraham’s old appearance was a gift from God. Grey hair was literal “crown of splendor” placed atop the head of a person to broadcast to the world that he contains a lifetime of knowledge, insights, and wisdom (Midrash Tanchuma Chayei Sarah 4). Appearing old like God would mean that others would take notice of the inherent godliness inside of Abraham. He knew from experience what it was like to walk with faith, to stand for justice, to yearn for children, and to bury someone he loved. His wrinkles and his hair attested to the various episodes of his life. Abraham needed people to understand that, compared to his son Isaac, he had generation more of living under his belt, so he prayed for an outward sign to convey this notion to the world (Midrash Tanchuma Chayei Sarah 1).

Yet, judging a person favorably simply by their age also comes with risks. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who was appointed to be the head of his rabbinic academy at the age of eighteen. Soon after receiving his post, he had a conversation with his wife where she expressed concern over his well-being; perhaps people would judge him because he appeared young and cast him out of the study hall. That night, a miracle occurred and his hair turned white so that he appeared “like a seventy year old” (Talmud, Berachot 28a). Because he now looked older, people took him seriously and gave him the space to lead.

Reflecting on the story a millennia later, Maimonides wrote (in his commentary on Mishnah Berachot 1:5) that Elazar ben Azaira worked tirelessly throughout his youth to attain knowledge and wisdom. When he was appointed to the head the academy, it was because he truly deserved it. Knowing that there was an inherent bias against youth and that his features would obscure the depth of his Torah learning, he pleaded with God for the same “crown” as Abraham. Maybe if he just looked a little older, people would treat him with the respect his wisdom called for.

As a young Rabbi, I’ve known acutely what it means to have people judge my learning by my features. I’ve had congregants ask for my older colleagues at times of loss because they assume that my age precludes me from truly understanding death. I’ve walked into classrooms and before opening my mouth had people wonder about my credentials. Yet, that same shortfall has worked the other way. I have been asked to officiate weddings because people have erred and judged me favorably by my age. They have assumed that I am approachable simply because I look like them.

Together Abraham and Elazar ben Azaria’s stories teach us a powerful lesson. We need to greet outward appearances of age with a great deal of ambivalence. On the one hand, no one is too young to be wise or too old to be vibrant. Yet, life experience does matter, and there is truth in the command, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an older person” (Lev 19:32). The older we get the more the more we have loved, the more we have fallen, and the more we have grown. Abraham’s gift to humanity was that as we age, our features will announce that we carry a life story with us that has made us wise and given us the tools to guide others.