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Good at Getting Older

Look over your life with gratitude so that you can say: you are blessed with everything.

“Sarah’s lifetime — the years of Sarah’s life — came to 100 years and twenty years and seven years.  Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, now Hevron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-3) The story goes on to describe how Abraham buys a burial plot for her. Then the Torah tells us he is old, and blessed with everything. 

Ancient rabbis believed that there were no extraneous words in Torah so they ask: why not just say that Sarah was 127 years old? Their answer: At a hundred she was as beautiful as she was when she was 20; at twenty she was as pure as she was at 7. So much for ageist assumptions! 100 is the new 20!

But Abraham, Genesis 24 tells us, “was old, advanced in days.” This verse is the first time in Torah someone is called “old.” The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 87a) teaches that “Until Abraham, there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Abraham might mistakenly find himself speaking to Isaac, or vice versa. So Abraham said to God: “ You must make a visible distinction between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth.” God replied, “Good idea! I’ll begin with you.” Abraham went to sleep, and when he woke up his hair had turned grey. He complained to God: “If you have given me grey hair as a mark of old age, that’s not what I had in mind. I don’t find it attractive.”

So much for internalized ageism…. still a challenge for us now. The midrash ends with God consoling Abraham: “On the contrary,” God replies, quoting Proverbs 16:31, “Grey hair is a crown of glory.” 

After he buries Sarah, Abraham goes on to the challenge of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Getting good at getting older involves looking forward to the future, investing in the next generation. When the Torah tells us about Isaac’s preparation to meet his bride, it says that Isaac goes out “lasuach b sedah”—to stroll in the field. The rabbis tell us that the word “lasuach” means more than just “to stroll.” They explain:  Isaac went out to do teshuva in the very same place where Hagar found the well that saved Ishmael ‘s life “Why?”  Their astonishing answer: to do teshuva for what his father did; to find Hagar and Ishmael to ask forgiveness.  To ask for a second chance to rebuild a relationship. 

The next verse: “And Abraham again took a wife, and her name was Keturah.”  The rabbis imagine that Keturah is in fact Hagar!  Because Isaac went to that well to apologize to Hagar, Hagar is able to forgive Isaac and Abraham. So Hagar returns with Isaac, and Abraham and Hagar remarry. 

Getting good at getting older requires asking for forgiveness, repairing relationships, believing in second chances and committing to the work one has to continually do to make second chances possible.

Getting good at getting older requires asking for forgiveness, repairing relationships, believing in second chances and committing to the work one has to continually do to make second chances possible.

Isaac finds comfort in the tent of his mother with his wife Rebecca. We mourn and then we move forward. Loss is real, but so is joy.  Then Abraham has more kids, leaves clear instructions as to how to divide his estate, and the parasha ends as Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury him. 

Here’s what we learn about getting good at getting older from Hayei Sarah. First, you really only know the meaning of a life after it is over. Second, as we grow older there is less time ahead than there was behind. People we love die. Plan your funeral – buy a burial plot, make an estate plan and tell your adult children what it is. Third, mourn for those you love and then move forward, investing in the next generation. Fourth, do the work of looking over what is still unfinished, those relationships that need healing, who you need to forgive, and from whom you need forgiveness. And finally, perhaps what is most important… look over your life with gratitude so that you can say: you are blessed with everything.


Rabbi Laura Geller is the co-author of Getting Good at Getting Older.  www.rabbilaurageller.com

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