Aging for the Ages

This essay by Rabbi Steve Sager was written in 2019 as he began a multi-year fascination with this midrash from Genesis Rabbah. He taught it on several occasions as part of a trilogy of the patriarchs. He was able to complete Abraham and Jacob on Zoom in 2022, only months before he died. He was unable to complete the third part of the trilogy on Jacob. It was recently produced by some of his students as we approach the first yahrtzeit of his death. All three videos of The Patriarchs and Journeys of Aging can be viewed here.

Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon was a third-century master of midrash, the ancient rabbinic art of reading Scripture in a way that invites personal experience and imagination into the biblical text. In this case, “aging” is the personal interest that Rabbi Yehuda brings to the Torah text, catching a glimpse of himself among the patriarchs and making the Torah a living document that is both timely and timeless.

Abraham was the first to give Rabbi Yehuda the opportunity to explore aging through the lens of a biblical text. Despite genealogies beginning with Adam, consisting of huge life-spans, Abraham is first in the Torah to be called old, followed by Isaac, and then Jacob. The keen-eyed Rabbi Yehuda, disposed towards thinking about aging, discerned something unique and different about aging in each of those formative generations.

In addition to providing an extended reflection on aging, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each in his own day, had occasion to declare:  Here I am—each one making that declaration in a unique circumstance. As he projects what he knows, imagines, and hopes about aging against the screen of the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda figuratively declares: “Here I am! I stand ready to bring the Torah to my life and to bring my life to the Torah; to illuminate the text and to be illuminated by it. “Here I am, he declared through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, insisting through them that powerful, complex dramas of aging needed and deserved a more detailed, illuminated Torah:

Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon said: Abraham insisted on old age, saying before God:  Master Of All Worlds, when a man and his son enter a place, no one knows which of them to honor. If you would adorn the father with old age, then one would know which one was worthy of respect. Said the Holy One to him: By your life, you are insisting on a good thing, and from you it will begin! From the beginning of the Torah until here, there is no mention of age. But to Abraham, he gave zikna, age: “And Abraham grew old [zaken], coming along in days” (Genesis 24:1). (Genesis Rabbah 65:9)

Up to the time of Abraham, the only Torah description of age was statistical. The text says, All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died. (Genesis 5:4-5). The personal records of progeny, life span, and death, constitute the main narratives that connect Adam to Noah, and Noah to Abraham

But statistics do not describe living experience. They do not offer insights into life’s seasons, or the seasoning that comes through living. The Torah’s deeper story of aging, Rabbi Yehuda insisted, resided in the word zaken, relating that Abraham grew old with physical manifestations of age.

Rabbi Yehuda’s Abraham insisted that something critical was lacking in a world where seniors could not be distinguished from their juniors. Missing was a physical marker of the venerable past, a sign of the honorable future; of life in which character grows. Signs of aging first appeared in the world as a concession to the mortal, human intuition and sensibility of Abraham that was won from a creator God who had simply never considered such a thing. The value and meaning of this creative partnership between the insistent patriarch and God continued to grow as Isaac took up the tradition of his father, standing up on behalf of aging in another way:

Isaac insisted upon impairments. He said before God: Master Of All Worlds, when a person dies without impairments, the measure of justice is drawn tight against him. But if you bring upon him impairments, then the measure of justice is not so tightly drawn. Said the Blessed Holy One: By your life! You have insisted upon a good thing, and it will begin with you. From the beginning of the book until here no mention is made of impairments. But when Isaac came up, God gave him impairments: “And it was when Isaac grew old that his eyes became too weak to see, etc.” (Genesis 26:35)

Rabbi Yehuda animated Isaac as he had Abraham, fashioning the second patriarch in his own rabbinic likeness and language, giving him a voice to express the sage’s insights about aging from within the Torah, itself. And so, Isaac, with the perspective of a third-century sage, argued that impairments would be useful—even heartening—signs that divine justice for any transgressions was being exacted during one’s lifetime and not stored up for one coup de grace in the World to Come.

For a short while, we find ourselves traveling in easy company with Rabbi Yehuda, agreeing with him that we seek to make meaning out of our impairments. But we likely part company over the meaning of impairments as a partial payment against ultimate judgment.

If we no longer travel side-by-side with Rabbi Yehuda, he still leads the way, securing our right to imbue Isaac’s story with renewed and personal meaning. Impairment is neither a decree nor a verdict, says the Isaac who speaks for us. We aspire to live with our impairments from which we fashion meaningful life. Weakening vision is not a sign of divine punishment or of poetic justice. To construe impairment as an enactment of divine judgment is a sign of the all-too-human impulse to draw lines of fault and blame. To understand impairment as the ever-tightening grip of divine justice constitutes its own impairment of a life that might otherwise thrive.

As signs of aging appeared first with Abraham, and impairments with Isaac, so did illness begin with Jacob:

Jacob insisted on illness. He said before God: Master Of All Worlds, one who dies without some preceding illness is unable to settle matters with the children. But one who was ill for two or three days could settle matters with the children. Said the Blessed Holy One: By your life! You have insisted upon a good thing, and it will begin with you! [As it is written concerning the end of Jacob’s life: “A servant] said to Joseph: Look! Your father is ill.” (Genesis 48:1)

In the case of Jacob, the Torah quickly recorded the outcome of his innovation. Jacob’s end-of-life illness afforded him the opportunity to speak himself—for all to hear—into his family’s story of journeys and blessings (Genesis 48-9). Thus, he closed the era of the Patriarchs. In his deathbed blessing, Jacob addressed each of his twelve sons, and wisely blessed in equal measure his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, ending generations of sibling rivalry. His request for burial in the ancestral grave joined his family to their inheritance of land. At the same time, knowing that his family would bury him and then return to Egypt, he made it clear that Jacob’s legacy extended beyond territory.

Through the Torah’s stories of the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda expressed his concerns about aging, finding and founding everyday life in the epic story. Through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Rabbi Yehuda insisted that no aspect of aging could proceed without meaning. The patriarchs became for him—and remain for us—not only heroes of aging but also partners in the creation of the human archetype.

Let us make humankind in our image (Genesis 1:26), said God in the beginning. Through the patriarchs, Rabbi Yehuda petitioned the Creator: Let us make humankind in our imagination. And God agreed, confirming as divine the truth that human imagination is a necessary partner in creating a meaningful life. And God’s agreement with the patriarchs, according to Rabbi Yehuda, constitutes a celebration of God as a gracious partner in creation itself.

We can be inspired by Rabbi Yehuda, especially in light of today’s culture that is so fearful of aging. We can aspire to become patriarchs and matriarchs who are mindful of the riches and opportunities presented by the aging self. We can add our voices to those of our ancestors, turning the whisper of the text into the shout and insistence for deeper and fuller meaning.

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