This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) deals with the death of Sarah. The Parsha begins with stating how old Sarah was when she died. Sarah died at the age of 127. However, that is not the way the Torah phrases it. The Torah says in Bereshit/Genesis 23:1 “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life”. Why does the Torah state Sarah’s age in such a strange and awkward way? Why does the Torah not just simply say that Sarah was 127?
Many people want to be a different age than what they are at any given moment in their lives. When you are a child, you dream of being a teenager. When you are a teenager, you dream of being in your twenties. Once you reach your thirties, suddenly you want be younger. Children yearn to be grownups, and grownups idealize the experiences of their youth. I think the idea being expressed by the unique way the Torah describes Sarah’s age is that whatever age she happened to be, she appreciated the value and dignity of that age. When she was 100, she embraced all that being 100 entails, and likewise at 20, at 7 and at every age and stage in her life.
While Sarah realized this, few of us today realize it, particularly when it comes to our older years. Many people today desire, as they age, to be younger. There is an entire industry that both feeds this desire and feeds off of this desire. Clothing stores, makeup companies, stylists and even the medical establishment all market themselves based on this phenomenon. Obviously, there is nothing wrong and everything right about looking and especially feeling our best. However, no one should be made to feel that looking and feeling their best in synonymous with being a certain age.
There is another problem with an obsession over youth. Over-valuing youth produces a corresponding devaluation of the responsibility of a society towards caring for people in their older years. With such an emphasis on what is positive about being young and trying to stay young, the needs of the elderly, and the value of their contribution to society, are too often overlooked. Shemot/Exodus 20:12 teaches the Mitzvah, the Commandment, to honor your father and mother. Rarely in Torah are we told of a reward for a given Mitzvah. However, for the Mitzvah of respecting our parents we are told that we will receive the reward of living a long life. Why? What does respecting your parents have to do with living a long life?
On a very general level, I would suggest that the Torah is making a statement about the kind of society that Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are supposed to create when they enter the land of Israel. One of the important elements that the Torah envisions for this new society is respect for people in their older years and an understanding on the part of all that we have a responsibility to the elders of our community. The reward of long life is not just a reward but actually a byproduct of respecting one’s parents. In a society where children understand it is their responsibility (if necessary) to take care of their elderly parents, those who fulfill this Mitzvah model for their children the normative value of caring for parents and treating them with the honor and dignity they deserve. Therefore, they will merit their children taking care of them in their later years, as they took care of and demonstrated how to honor their parents. If everyone were to practice this Mitzvah, we would all have long lives because we will have created a society where taking care of older people is the norm, an expectation, an obligation and a privilege. In a sense it is an expression of enlightened self-interest, recognizing that we, too, will ultimately benefit by creating a society of caring.
Sometimes I am on a train or a bus and I see older people standing and younger people sitting. Not only do younger people tend not to give up their seat but they do not even seem to have any sense that there is something wrong with their behavior. Worse yet, I have seen parents with children who are old enough to stand for the length of the trip, yet they make sure their children have a seat even when an elderly person is visibly in pain, but standing because no seats are available. In many transit systems throughout the world there are signs posted that if you are sitting in certain designated seats and an elderly person comes up to you and asks to sit down, then you must relinquish your seat. This is what it has come to, that we designate seats that older people can ask for. Such signs exist in cultures that do not value aging; respecting elders and understanding the responsibility we have towards the older members of our society. Obviously this is better than not having the sign. However, we should strive to create a society where such signs are superfluous, where it is automatic that when someone sees an elderly person standing that they spring up to offer them their seat.
How do we change our society? I think that we need to go back to the way this article began. Sarah appreciated each and every age as she lived it. This is one of the keys to happiness in life, being happy with the stage of life we are currently living. Too often in life we find ourselves obsessing over either our future or our past. Every stage of life offers something powerful and meaningful. Our younger years provide us with the incredible excitement of seeing, learning and experiencing things for the first time, while our older years are blessed with the wisdom of reflection that comes with abundant experience. By valuing and appreciating our own stage of life as we experience it, we develop a corresponding appreciation and empathy for others at their stages of life. It says in Malachi 3:23 that redemption will come to the world when Eliya the Prophet will “return the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents”. Maybe what that means is that redemption will come to the world when young and old both understand that they have something to offer each other and that each has a responsibility towards the other.
“When I get older losing my hair, many years from now … Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four”.
Excerpted from the song “When I’m 64” by the Beatles.