A few weeks ago, I travelled to Canada to visit my 94 year old grandfather who has been very ill. He had a stroke 30 years ago, and his condition has worsened over the past year – he has gone into palliative care numerous times.
When I arrived with my wife Rachel, he welcomed us with surprise and a big smile.
There was such a look of sweetness and goodness in his face. A smile that lit up the room. We told him about our life, and his eyes filled with joy. He banged his foot as we sang the old songs that he loved.
But he seemed like a different person than the grandfather that I had known growing up. I looked hard but could not see any of the character of that man. The body was sick and fragile. The personality was barely recognizable.
But his soul was shining through in such a powerful way. A soul that I had felt all of my life, in the background, but only got rare glances of – at special moments in my life.
Now that soul was shinning forth. All else had withered away. His eyes filled with a radiance that seemed to convey the essence of who he was and always had been. He was ready. As our parashah, chayey Sarah says about Abraham, ve Avraham zaken ba bayamim –and Abraham was advanced in years. My grandfather was also advanced in years and as the torah exclaims about Abraham, he was ready to be gathered among his people. After a full life, he was in his last stage, turned to the heavens.
In our tradition, as we learn through the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, and the wisdom and rituals of the rabbis, we believe in the sanctity and the unique character of the different stages of life.
One of the most commonly read passages at life cycle moments, is from the book of Kohelet Ecclesiastestraditionally attributed to King Solomon in his old age:
A season is set for everything,
A time for every experience under heaven:
A time for planting and a time for reaping;
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for embracing and a time for refraining;
A time for slaying and a time for healing;
A time for laughing and a time for weeping;
A time for dancing and a time for wailing;
A time for birthing and a time for dying.
The first rabbinic collection of texts, the mishnah in the chapter Pirkei Avot, the ethics of the fathers, goes deeper to teach us about the different stages of life.
The rabbis write:
At age five, one studies Bible,
At ten, the Mishna,
At thirteen, one is responsible for mitzvoth.
At eighteen, one is ready for marriage.
At twenty, one begins one’s career,
And at thirty, one is at the height of his powers.
At forty, one achieves binah, understanding.
At fifty, one is prepared to give wise counsel,
At sixty, one is given the deference of seniority, zikna
At seventy, one is considered a sage.
Eighty is the age of heroic strength.
In our modern age, these categories may shift somewhat –and I will say to all of the teenagers here today, I don’t recommend you get married at 18! – But the mishnah teaches us that there are different stages to life built into the nature of the world.
Each stage unique and offering unique opportunities and challenges. Of being in the world and in the journeys of life. Of being in relationship and in harmony to oneself and to the rest of society.
Our youth is a time of learning and absorbing. All of the life of a young person is focused on experience. They learn how to become productive members of society. To know themselves. To become literate in the ways of their communities, gathering the foundational knowledge and skills that will enable them to navigate life. They begin to define their place within the larger society.
The middle part of a person’s life is about having a family, mastering a vocation, and being active in the world. Developing the skills to excel at our work and contribute to society. Developing our personalities through our lives as parents and workers. Becoming a force in the world.
And in the final part of our life, our active life in society diminishes, as, at the same time, we become a source of wisdom for others in their journeys and lives. The tradition teaches us that we start the process of turning inwards, to develop our spiritual qualities. We gather understanding, perspective, and knowledge. As the body itself starts to break down, we are forced to look at deeper ideas of self than identification with our body and looks. We start to shift how we look at life and think about the meaning and purpose of our existence.
As our life advances and those who are close to us depart this world. we begin to contemplate our own mortality and what our fate will be after death. We turn our minds toward the eternal questions.
And finally, as we enter our last years, even our personality is sometimes stripped from us and then we are forced by the cycle of life itself to only reside in our soul. Our personality with its likes and dislikes becomes just a shell, and our body a shadow of its former vitality and vigor.
The last stage of life according to the mishnah is gevurah, strength, when we face mortality with strength and slowly let go of all that has preoccupied us during our years.
These are the cycles of life that the Torah teaches us in the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs.
Before we encounter Abraham in the Torah, the rabbis describe how he spends his youth, searching and learning, questioning, until he discovers monotheism.
In the Torah portions of Lekh Lekha and Vayera, Abraham is in the active part of his life, as he undergoes intense trials and tribulations to give birth to a new religion. He goes from Abram to Abraham. He is circumcised. And, he must face all of his demons in the final test of the binding of Isaac. These ten tests tax all of his powers.
And finally in our portion Chayey Sarah, Abraham’s struggles come to an end and his life shifts.
The Torah tells us, Avraham zaken babayamim ve Adonai berakh et Avraham ba kol, Abraham was advanced in years and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.
The Abraham of our parashah is turned away from the world, contented and fulfilled, preparing himself for his final days. His character no longer shines through and he seems a different person.
He has fulfilled all that he has to fulfill.
Before he dies Abraham, the patriarch, must take care of a final family affair, burying his wife Sarah and finding a wife for his son. And so the transition takes place throughout our parashah. Abraham buries Sarah, sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Finally, he dies be seiyvah tovah, at a good ripe age.
As Abraham’s life comes to an end, the life of his son Isaac now takes center stage in the Torah’s drama. Isaac, whose voice we have barely heard, is now himself ready to move forward in the cycle of life. As he awaits the arrival of Rebbekah, Isaac sits in meditation in the fields contemplating his new life and his future marriage. The wheel turns once more.
The message of our parashah is that there is a time for everything. A time for every experience under heaven: A time for planting and a time for reaping; A time for keeping and a time for discarding.
And each stage in the cycle of life has its own character and purpose, its own ways of being. Each stage presents different moments and potentials for growth and contribution.
In our society, the lines between the stages have blurred but it is has been to our detriment. Like our ancestors, our task is to recognize each one and dedicate ourselves fully to it. Putting ourselves in tune with its character. Accepting where we are with grace and joy.
The message of our parashah is that there is a peace that comes from accepting the turns of the wheel. That comes from being in tune with the movements of life and with the cycles of the world. That through it, we bind ourselves to God. We live with fullness and without regrets. We integrate all of the qualities of the stages of life in harmony, and can fully express their spiritual power.
As the first line of our parashah exclaims, ‘And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years.’ The French commentator Rashi asks why is Sarah’s age divided into three parts? He answers because when she was twenty, she was like a seven year old in beauty, when she was 100, she was like a 20 year old in purity… At the end of her life, all of her different spiritual qualities were integrated into her being and shone through her. As Rashi continues, all of the years of her life were le’tovah, for good.
We all go through stages in life, our job is to meet each stage in the best way that we can, with grace and joy. To be in harmony with the circumstances of our life and to strive to use the tools that God has given us to make the world a better place.