Seventy Faces of Torah “Good Old Age”: Living and Dying Well
Parshat Hayyei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18
Last year this time, my Facebook feed blew up with an article in The Atlantic written by the physician and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel. Emanuel argued that many Americans were unnecessarily extending their lives, sacrificing quality of life for quantity, spending the last years of their lives physically and mentally deteriorating, in hospitals and nursing homes for unnaturally long stretches of time. Instead of engaging in constant testing and medical care, when he reaches the age of 75, Emanuel wrote, he will “stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions.” Rather than do whatever he can to continue living, no matter in how diminished a state, he will die “when whatever comes first takes [him].” For understandable reasons (as well as some political ones, having to do with his role as an adviser for health policy in the Obama administration), his piece hit a nerve.
The ironically named Torah portion, Parshat Hayyei Sarah—literally, “the life of Sarah”—is a good place to think about some of these questions, because despite its appellation, it is one of the more death-focused parshiyot in the Torah. It is bookended by the deaths of the first two Jews, Sarah and Avraham, which respectively take up the better portions of chapters 23 and 25 of the Book of Genesis. The Torah makes quite clear that we are supposed to read the narratives of Sarah’s and Avraham’s deaths as parallel to each other, as we can see if we look at the two descriptions side by side:
|The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and seven years— the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan. And Avraham came to eulogize her… After this, Avraham buried Sarah his wife to [in Hebrew, el] the cave of the field of Makhpeilah facing Mamre, which is Hebron in the Land of Canaan. The field and the cave in it passed to Avraham as a burial plot from the Hittites.||These are the days of the years of the life of Avraham, who lived 100 years and 70 years and five years. And Avraham grew weak and died in good old age, old and content, and he was gathered unto his people. Yitzhak and Yishmael his sons buried him to (el) the cave of Makhpeilah to the field of Efron son of Tzohar the Hittite, which is facing Mamre. The field that Avraham acquired from the Hittites, there Avraham is buried, and Sarah his wife.|
The similarities are striking. Like obituaries in contemporary newspapers, these end-of-life tales have a standardized, almost formulaic structure, opening with the phrase “life of Sarah/Avraham” (“John Doe passed away Sunday”), relating their age at death in a similar way (“they were 82 years old”), describing who buried them ( “they are survived by…”), and describing the cave where they are buried (“funeral services will take place at…”). All of this similarity draws my attention to one puzzling difference: While Sarah dies “in” a place (Kiryat Arba), Avraham dies “in” a state of being (“good old age, old and content”).
What are we to make of this change? Why does the Torah not relate the geography of Avraham’s death? Or, from the other direction: Why does the Torah not describe Sarah as dying in “good old age?”
As it turns out, Avraham’s old age has already been a theme in the parashah. The chapter that appears in between the deaths of Sarah and Avraham describes at great length the story of Avraham sending his servant to the city of Nahor to find a bride for his son Yitzhak–the story of the servant’s finding Rivkah. But this tale of travel and, eventually, a kind of romance, is introduced with the words “Avraham had become old (v’Avraham zakein). Classical midrash picks up on this moment, with the sage Rabbi Yehudah b. Rabbi Simon telling us that “old age” actually came into being at Avraham’s request:
Rabbi Yehudah b. Rabbi Simon said: Avraham requested old age (ziknah). He said before God: “Master of all the worlds, a person and their child enter a place, and no one knows whom to honor. When you crown the one with old age, a person knows whom to honor.” The Holy Blessed One said: “By your life, you have requested a good thing, and it will begin with you.” From the beginning of the book [of Genesis] until here, “old age” was never written, but as soon as Avraham our Father stood up, he was given old age, as it says, “Avraham had become old” (Genesis Rabbah 65).
Until Avraham’s request, this midrash tells us, a 90-year old grandmother and a 20-year old youth might look roughly the same; all of the telltale signs of old age with which we are so familiar—the wrinkles, the creaking back, the slowed reflexes—had not yet come into the world. The wisdom that comes with age, then as now, should command respect, but without visible badges of one’s chronological seniority, others will miss the opportunity to show honor to—and thus, learn from—their elders. Avraham therefore convinces God to create the physical signs of aging in order to mark those who have reached old age.
If we take the placement of the midrash seriously, then this development—Avraham’s becoming the first person to exhibit the signs of aging—took place after Sarah’s death, and before the search for his son’s life partner. The process of aging thus appears amidst a constellation of intense intellectual and emotional moments—the loss of a life partner (Genesis 23), the conclusion of raising a child to adulthood (Genesis 24), and the acquisition of wisdom that commands the respect of those who have not yet lived so full a life. Rather than fear the physical manifestations of his advancing age, Avraham seeks it out, precisely because his life has achieved a measure of fullness—and because he is able to appreciate that achievement.
This acceptance of and appreciation for his old age leads inexorably to his death. Once “good old age, old and content” has been achieved, there is no more need for engagement in mundane matters, or in extending his life unnecessarily. With his life partner gone after a long road together, and his son’s future apparently secured, Avraham is ready to go. We are told where he is buried—where to mark his memory—but his actual death is not bounded by prosaic geographical categories. What matters is not where he died, but how he died. By becoming the first human to achieve elderliness, Avraham also becomes a model of what an ideal death looks like.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. Formerly the rabbi of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Washington Heights, NYC, he was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and received his Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the co-author, with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, of the forthcoming book Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law (Urim, 2016).