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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Chayei Sarah and the Veterans of Creative Suffering

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

The opening of our parsha is noteworthy for the peculiar way in which the years of Sarah's life are numbered. Instead of saying that she lived to be a hundred and twenty seven years old, it says that she lived to be "a hundred year[s] and twenty year[s] and seven years". The Midrashim, you won't be surprised to hear, have a field-day with that. Later on, the narrative also relates to Abraham's age (Genesis 24:1):

וְאַבְרָהָ֣ם זָקֵ֔ן בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים וַֽיהוָ֛ה בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם בַּכֹּֽל׃

The verse is difficult to translate. It tells us that Abraham was old (זקן). It tells us that God had blessed him in all respects (וה' ברך את-אברהם בכל). But the phrase that's hard to translate here is "בא בימים". What does it mean?

In a particularly creative flourish, the King James translation tells us that Abraham was "well stricken in age." Robert Young was, characteristically, closer to the literal meaning and further away from making sense, with his translation, and its claim that Abraham "hath entered into days" - since the word "בא" means to draw near, or to enter, and "בימים" means with or into days. Perhaps the idea is (in accordance with the JPS translation of 1985) that Abraham was "advanced in years". But, of course he was; he was old! We already know that. Read this way, the phrase adds nothing.

The phrase has occurred once before. When Abraham and Sarah receive the news that they are to conceive, we are told that they were "old," and (to translate literally) that they were "come into days" (Genesis 18:11).

Over there, Nahmanides explains that a young person can be described as standing in his days, because he is still in the middle of the days that have been allotted to him to live. Those days are his. But once a person has outlived her contemporaries, it's as if she has entered the days of another; like a stranger who enters a new town. She has come into days that are not hers.

By the time that Abraham and Sarah were blessed with the news of Isaac's arrival, they were like relics from a bygone age; no longer standing in their own days.

The Zohar offers a reading that is at once more literal and more poetic. Abraham had accrued such merit, it tells us, that "when he departed from this world, he came along with his own days and wore them. Nothing was lacking in that raiment of glory, as it says, he "came with days" [i.e., he was wearing his days]."

Most of us, when we come before our maker, to give an account of ourselves, at the end of our lives, will be eager to present our achievements but will probably want to gloss over the days that were wasted or misspent. Abraham and Sarah, by contrast, "came with their days" - every one of their days was something that they could present to their maker with pride.

Last week I mentioned that the first appearance of a word in the Bible is taken, by the Rabbis, to be of deep significance; introducing an archetype. This week, we find a Midrash that seizes on Abraham's distinction, as the first individual to be singled out for his age (since Sarah is never described as being old on her own, but only alongside Abraham). The Midrash argues that Abraham's old-age carried a profound significance.

Rabbi Yehuda son of Simon said: "Abraham requested old age. He said before [God], "Master of the Universe, a person and his son enter a place, and nobody knows who to honour. If you were to crown a person with [the outward signs of old-age], then a person would know who to honour.""

I don't quite know where to begin. Are we to believe that before Abraham, nobody ever showed any sign of aging? Did they finish puberty and then remain in in their biological prime until they dropped dead? Did Methuselah look like a 20-something year old, when he died at the age of 969? And then, are we supposed to believe that Abraham, a righteous man, deserving of honour, would have sought this honour out; that he would have begrudged a person honouring his son? Yes. That's what we have to imagine. The Midrash continues:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "By your life! You've claimed a good thing, and from you it will begin." From the start of the book until now, "old-age" isn't written. But from the rise of Abraham, old age was given to him, [as it is written (Genesis 24:1)]: "And Abraham was old, advanced in his days".

In actual fact, "old-age" was mentioned before our parsha, and Genesis 24:1. It was mentioned already, last week, in Genesis 18:11. But, perhaps we can overlook this detail. After all, the first time that "old-age" appears, it describes a couple - Abraham and Sarah. This is the first time that the word appears in order to single out an individual, Abraham. But even so, the Midrash is difficult to swallow. We all have to reconcile ourselves to the physical affects of aging, or we have to invest in anti-wrinkle cream, Botox, and face-lifts - and even then, it's a losing game. And apparently, this is all Abraham's fault! The Midrash continues:

Isaac requested [the] suffering [of old-age]. He said before [God], "Master of the universe, if a person dies without suffering, the attribute of justice will bend over him [to mete out his punishment], but if you bring suffering [in this life] upon him, then the attribute of justice will not bend over him [to mete out eternal punishment in the next life]." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "By your life! You've claimed a good thing, and from you it will begin." From the beginning of the book until now, there is no mention of [the] suffering [of old-age]. But from the rise of Isaac, [the] suffering [of old age] was given to him, [as it is written, (Genesis 27:1)]: "When Isaac was old, his eyes were too weak to see..."

Things have gone from bad to worse. Abraham is to blame for our wrinkles and gray hairs. He ruined the party for everyone, since he was the one to give God the idea. But still, things weren't too bad. We got gray hairs and wrinkles, but our strength didn't fail us. Old age didn't come with frailty. Isaac is to blame for that! He seems to have wanted old age to come with pain and suffering, somehow to atone for our sins and to prepare us for the world to come. God hadn't thought of these things. We have Abraham and Isaac to blame. But the Midrash isn't finished:

Jacob requested [terminal] illness. He said before [God], "Master of the universe, a person dies without [a prior] illness, he doesn't arrange matters between his children. [In other words, he doesn't get to put his house in order]. But if he were to be ill for two or three days [before dying], he [would know that it was time to] arrange matters between his children." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "By your life! You've claimed a good thing, and from you it will begin. [As it is written (Genesis 58:1): "He said to Joseph, behold your father is ill..." [and Jacob used this opportunity to gather his children together and to bless them.]

As if to nail home how horrendous this entire Midrash is, Rabbi Levi chimes in with the following summary:

Abraham innovated [the outward signs of] old-age, Isaac innovated [the] suffering [associated with old-age], and Jacob innovated [terminal] illness.

Well, thanks!

We could walk away from this Midrash with some very dispiriting conclusions. First: the Rabbis were so naive as to think that there was simply no aging before Abraham, and no frailty before Isaac, and no illness before Jacob, just because the Bible doesn't mention those concepts before the story of those people. Secondly: our Midrash coldly celebrates the way in which these three people brought untold suffering upon themselves and the rest of humanity. But I don't think we have to read the Midrash this way at all.

"By your life!" God says. "What a wonderful idea!" As if these concepts were completely new to him. The Midrash has a sense of humour. But the Midrash is conveying a serious point through these humorous means.

It's not that Abraham truly initiated, or requested, the signs of ageing. Instead, he was the first old person truly to deserve the honour that is given to the elderly. Remember: he hadn't wasted a single day. It's not merely that he'd lived a long time, but like Sarah - his wife and partner in founding our people - he had come into his days. He wore his age in a new way. He and Sarah were the first people to use their life without wasting a moment. Everywhere he went he brought all of his days with him. His wrinkles were battle scars of a life well lived. In other words, he gave new meaning to the signs of age.

God had no need to mention age in his book, before Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was, as Rabbi Levi put it, an innovator.

Likewise, Isaac wasn't the first person to become frail. He wasn't the first person to suffer. He didn't invite his frailty upon himself.

Pain and suffering are brute facts of our physical existence. We know that the problem of evil is the biggest philosophical and existential challenge to face the theist. Moreover, we cannot judge a person who loses faith in the face of suffering. But there's no doubt that some people are able to relate to their suffering, somehow, as an opportunity for growth. They relate to it as something that will cleanse them, or refine them, or reconcile them to their morality, or they hear in their own suffering a call to contemplation. For those people, suffering can some how be invested with religious significance. As Rabbi Levi would put it, Isaac was an innovator because he was the first to invest such significance into his own frailty.

Finally, Jacob didn't - God forbid - request that God invent terminal illness. It wasn't the case that before Jacob people were permanently healthy until their sudden deaths. That's just the conceit of the Midrash. But this is its lesson: Jacob related to his own terminal illness as, at least, an opportunity to set things straight with his family. He didn't celebrate his suffering, but he did find a use for it.

The Reverend Dr., Martin Luther King praised the rank and file of the civil rights movement as "the veterans of creative suffering." He urged them to, "Continue to work with the faith that un-earned suffering is redemptive."

I'm not sure that I could sign on to the view, popular with some Christian theologians, that suffering is always redemptive. But it certainly can be. Suffering can often crush a person's hope and faith. But we shouldn't ignore the fact that sometimes, a person is able to invest their suffering with historical, political, religious, or cosmic significance. When they do so, these veterans of creative suffering are following in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; innovators who found new ways to inject meaning into the darker episodes of their lives.

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