Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 24:1): “And Avraham was old, advanced in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” The Midrash expounds (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 104):
Avraham asked for old age. He said to Hashem: “Master of the Universe! A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Hashem replied: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” From the beginning of the Torah up to this point, no one is described as old. Then Avraham arose, and Hashem granted him old age.
The Maggid characterizes this Midrash as astonishing. Clearly it is wrong to second-guess the way Hashem created the world. Other Midrashim stress this point. For example, regarding the Torah’s report that Hashem described His creation with all its elements as “very good,” the Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 17): “Their Creator praises them, who can denigrate them?” Further, it is written (Koheles 2:12):  “Who is man to approach the King about how they have already fashioned him?” And the Midrash in Koheles Rabbah 2:14 elaborates, teaching that a person should not say that it would be better if he had three hands, or three eyes, or three ears, or three legs, for Hashem “conferred” with His heavenly court regarding every limb and organ in the human body, and constructed man in the best possible way. How then could Avraham dare to ask Hashem to introduce the phenomenon of old age into the world, as if he had found a deficiency in Hashem’s creation?
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. A person has two sets of needs to address: those of the body and those of the soul. He can receive aid from others in both of these domains. In the physical domain, a young and vigorous man can provide capable aid while typically an old man cannot. If, for example, a person wants to hire a servant, he will prefer a young man to an old man. In the spiritual domain, on the other hand, an old man is more capable. An elder is preferable to a young man as a moral leader, to exhort the people of the community and direct them toward Hashem’s ways. Thus, the Torah teaches (Devarim 32:7):  “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.” Similarly, Iyov’s companion Elihu, in explaining why he waited before expressing his views, stated (Iyov 32:7):  “I said to myself, ‘Let days speak; let abundant years speak wisdom.’” Generally, people defer to an elder and respect his opinion.
Avraham was the first man to assume the role of “elder.”  All the generations before him angered Hashem, one after the other, for they were all sunken in worldly affairs. And even if there were occasional individuals who did good, they were concerned only with their own conduct, and did not strive to enlighten others and lead them to the proper path. Noach, for example, was a “righteous and wholehearted man,” yet he did not make any major effort to provide moral counsel to the people of his generation and set them straight. Hence, until Avraham, there was no reason for introducing old age into the world. On the contrary, for the material pursuits that the people of those generations focused on, old age was – as we noted above – a serious liability. Avraham was the first to take upon himself the mission of providing the masses with moral counsel and an awareness of Hashem. Before Avraham came forward, Hashem was “the God of heaven” but His presence was not perceived on earth; after Avraham’s efforts, Hashem became “the God of heaven and the God of earth,” for Avraham had made Hashem’s Name part of the regular vocabulary of the people.  Accordingly, it was fitting for him to become an old man, for he would then be more effective in his sacred mission: People would regard him with favor and listen to him.
This reasoning is what led Avraham to take the bold step of asking Hashem to make him old. He told Hashem: “A man and his son enter a place, and no one knows which one to honor. If You adorn the father with old age, people will know whom to honor.” Obviously, given Avraham’s lofty spiritual level, it is ridiculous to think that he was seeking honor simply to gratify his ego. Rather, he was seeking honor so that his moral counsel would be more readily accepted. Accordingly, Hashem answered him: “By your life, you have asked for a good thing, and it will start with you.” Hashem knew what Avraham was thinking, and He concurred completely.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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