This week’s parsha was my Bat Mitzvah parsha, (sometime in the 1970s shall we say…). As time passes and my kids get older, I reflect more on aging. I often don’t “feel” my age, and whenever I go to weddings, I still feel like a 25 year old. Right then, my kids, (and my need for earplugs!) come to remind me that I’m not 25 anymore. Like the words of Peter Pan, “I won’t grow up, never grow up – not me!”, we all struggle with the reality of getting older.
In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Sarah dies at the age of 127 and the bereaved Avraham has to look for a burial spot.
“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.”
What is curious about the verse is that it states that Sarah lived for 127 years, which is described in the Torah as 100 + 20 +7 years- the two lives of Sarah. The Midrash explains the verse as follows: that at one hundred, Sarah was like a twenty year old with regards to sin (i.e. a very small amount and therefore never had to be punished), and at twenty, she was like a seven year old in terms of beauty.” (Bereisheet Rabba)
What can we learn from the life of Sarah about facing and accepting aging in a gracious and holy way? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik elaborates on the ideas of the above Midrash in a way that I think can help us combat that “Peter Pan” refusal to grow up.
“Sarah at twenty was mature and fully developed both intellectually and emotionally; she was energetic, bold and daring. Yet the adult in Sarah did not destroy the child. In the deep recesses of her personality, no matter how developed, no matter how capable and brilliant, no matter how attractive and ingenious – always resides an innocent child….she retained within her the young girl she had been once upon a time. In times of need and crisis, the young, bold, courageous girl came to the fore and took over…. The ability to experience childhood, youth and old age concurrently is a sign of the covenantal community.”
Rav Soloveitchik is suggesting that aging is not just a number. The cumulative events of life do not get replaced year by year but get stored for reference. When Sarah died, she was remembered as a twenty year old and as a seven year old, because she was able to reach into her personality and still find the energy of a 20 year old and the innocence of a 7 year old. Rav Soloveitchik is telling us that when getting older we need to learn how to harness the experiences of youth and call upon them when we need them. At times, we need to act our age; at other times, we need to act like our younger selves.
This past week, a wonderful member of my synagogue passed away. Despite being quite frail by ill health, he celebrated his grandson’s bar mitzvah with an enormous joie de vivre just a week before his passing. He danced and sang, and smiled like his younger self. His family members were amazed by how much energy he had at the bar mitzvah.
Rather than being like Peter Pan, I think that the message of the Torah is that we must grow up, yet never lose the child within. When we need to, we have to become kids again, and find the strength and energy for the tough and joyous times as adults.