It is hard to escape from the theme of old age in Chayei Sarah (Gen 23–25). We open with the end of life of our first matriarch, followed not long after by the peaceful death of Abraham, and the aging of Ishmael while paving the way for a new generation: that of Isaac and his sons. Even our haftarah is preoccupied with the theme of aging as it retells of King David’s last days, a sharp contrast to those of Abraham.
(Re)Productive Senior Years
Old age is portrayed as a time of youthful activity for Abraham and Sarah. Abraham only began his journey to Canaan at 75, a good time for modern retirement (Gen 12:4). From that point forward, he traveled, acquired wealth, dug wells, entertained important dignitaries and defended entire cities at an age that we have come to associate with golf, card playing and the large print Reader’s Digest. Sarah and Abraham began parenting at well past nursing home ages. In addition, both deaths are recorded in Genesis with ceremony and dignity and not the fading away of a once vibrant past.
Abraham’s age is generally mentioned in association with narratives on fertility; his age is recorded in connection with his struggle to have a child or with the birth of a child. In Genesis 12, at the very beginning of Abraham’s story, we are told that he was 75 when he set out for Canaan, a detail offered in conjunction with the fact that Lot, his nephew, departed with him.
He would ostensibly be Abraham’s heir since Lot’s father Haran died (Gen 11:28). When that option did not work for complex reasons, we find the next recording of Abraham’s age in Genesis 16, when Hagar “bore a son to Abram, and Abram gave the son that Hagar bore him the name Ishmael” (16:15). Immediately thereafter, the text informs us that Abraham was 86 “when Hagar bore Ishmael to him” (16:16).
When the annunciation of a son was made known to Sarah, she laughed to herself and complained that Abraham was too old (18:12). The verse contends as much when it states that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years” and ostensibly biologically challenged by this new reality. Eight days after Isaac was born and then circumcised, Abraham’s age is mentioned yet again: “Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (21:5).
After Sarah’s death, Abraham takes another wife, Keturah and has six children with her (Gen 25:1). Two verses after the descendants are listed, we learn again of Abraham’s age: 175 (25:7).
In addition to the tracing of Abraham’s age in connection to his fertility, Abraham was careful in creating distinctions between the different family clusters that he created – Sarah and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, Keturah and her children. The text makes a point of saying that Abraham “gave gifts while he was still living” (Gen 25:6) and sent one side of the family “to the land of the East.”
These families are kept apart in the text, safeguarding the leadership of the next generation. We lack here the terrible in-fighting we have with David and his family over the heir to his throne even though Abraham’s choices were riddled with their own moral problems, as evidenced by the accompanying haftarah. On the surface it appears that Abraham succeeds in tying up his family and community affairs with the same dignity that characterized his senior years. Genesis 24:1 tells us that at Abraham’s passing, he was “old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.”
Abraham – Old and Contented
In his JPS commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna describes the expression “old and contented” (Gen 25:8) as unique in the entire Bible to Abraham.
Such a summation of a life is found with no other personality in biblical literature. The phrase describes not his longevity, which is otherwise mentioned, but the quality of his earthly existence.
This characterization will not only be in contrast to David, who lay cold in his bed before he died, it contrasts one generation later with the aging of Isaac. Meir Sternberg in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative says that the Abraham texts prepare the reader for a repetition of the patriarch’s good fortune:
Epithetic old age thus associated with all the blessings of character and fortune, it becomes their overt metonymy. Surface and depth appear to establish in concert the type of the Departing Patriarch. So the reader naturally looks forward to the recurrence of this type precedent in the next generation. But history does not repeat itself, except to dissociate externals from internals. Contrary to expectation, “Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see” (27:1) turns out to be a prologue to a very different tale. Here old age goes neither with admirable character nor with happiness and success but with failing powers all round, notably spiritual as well as physical decay. The day having come for Isaac, too, to put his house in order (“I am old, I do not know the day of my death”), he only manages to create disorder…
In other words, the fact that Abraham died old and contented did not become the standard for biblical aging that was achieved with luck but something the patriarch achieved by virtue of wise decisions about his legacy and his household. The Talmud – with its usual hermeneutic flourish – notes this based on a word-play and arrives at an unusual observation: “Until the time of Abraham, there were no visible signs of old age.” Abraham looked like Isaac. Isaac looked like Abraham. Consequently, Abraham, the Talmud states, “beseeched God for mercy so that he would have physical signs of old age” (BT Sanhedrin 107b).
Achievement and Activity in the Twilight Years
The way Abraham spent the latter part of his life deconstructs a well-implanted myth about old age as a time to slow down and become more passive, to lose hold on the strong coloration of everyday activity. Rabbi Matis Weinberg is his book Frameworks, criticizes the notion that old age is commonly associated with being useless or worn out. He contends that when we propagate this type of myth,
…it is not only the old man who is cheated of the chance to live within his own profound contribution to the life cycle. It is we and the future who are cheated, victimized into believing that success and life lie only in a future that may never come, beguiled into working endlessly for “retirement,” as if in dormancy there awaits the great secret of life, as if in leisure there lies fulfillment (Genesis, “The Invention of Old Age,” p.116).
Precisely the opposite is the case with regard to Abraham. Old age is the very time when he began activity in the Bible. There is no dormancy or leisure in the Abraham narratives. Except perhaps for a few days of rehabilitation in Alon Moreh, Abraham was always on the move – quite literally – breaking down conventional expectations of what can be achieved in the twilight years.
In b. Bava Kama 97b, we find a beautiful midrash about Abraham’s life symbolized in a common object: “What was the coin of our father Abraham? An old man and old woman on one side and youth and maiden on the reverse.” Rashi on this statement understands that Abraham and Sarah were the elderly couple and Isaac and Rebeccah were the youthful couple on the other side. The coin displayed the happy family, one generation after another.
Since the Talmud does not mention specific names on the coins, it is not an untenable conjecture that the young couple was not Isaac and Rebeccah but Abraham and Sarah in their younger years. This coin was minted with an image of one couple at two different times in their lives. Sarah and Abraham had one life and accompanying names, homeland and religion, yet when we turn the same coin we find that they also had an entirely new life, names, homeland and religion in their later years, signified by both their younger and older appearance.
The metaphor of a coin can suggest the two dimensions that are imprinted in one object. A coin, however, is not only a two-sided object of aesthetic interest. A coin is currency; it moves from hand to hand as one of the most utilized and functional objects that enters and exits our daily lives. As such, it can carry significant messages that a government or a nation might want to communicate to all of its members, like “In God We Trust.”
Why did the Sages come up with this curious discussion of Abraham’s coins? Perhaps, they too were interested in breaking the myth of old age. By imagining a coin that would communicate to all who used it that there are two dimensions to every life, they would be creating and disseminating a new myth. They would be telling a younger generation that a new, robust life awaited them in the future – on the other side of the coin. The coin was a small but potent way to transfer an idea from one person to another. Old age – accompanied by good health – can be inspiring and spiritual edifying when shaped by activity, intention, design and good choices.
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October 8, 2013
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Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults with for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. Among her books are Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death and Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anxiety in the Book of Numbers.
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