Happy is Youth that has not Brought Shame To Old Age
It is written, “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of Sarah’s life” (Genesis 23:1). Rashi notes that the repetition, “These were the years of Sarah’s life” indicates that they were all equally good.
It is difficult to understand, however, why Rashi interprets the repetition as such, since this is already indicated by the fact that the word shana (“year”) is used in the singular. Literally, the verse states: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred year and twenty year…” which shows us that each year was equal to the others. Thus the question stands: Why is it written, “These were the years of Sarah’s life”?
We will now clearly explain this. Rashi cites the commentary of the Sages: “At one hundred years, she was without sin like a young girl of twenty years. In the same way that a young girl of twenty years is without sin, at one hundred years she was without sin, and at twenty years she was beautiful as a child of seven years” (Bereshith Rabba 58:1). The Torah here testifies to the virtues of Sarah even at the age of seven. At that age, when a child loves to play, when one has no responsibilities whatsoever, neither with regards to oneself nor to others, she was like a young woman of twenty – adult and responsible. She was virtuous and knew her Creator as much at twenty as at seven. At twenty, she was as wise as a woman of one hundred years, and conversely, just as at the age of twenty she was in possession of all her strength, so too at the age of one hundred was she in possession of all her mind and all her strength. Not that she had stayed at the same level all that time, but she had progressed from year to year, and although her evil inclination was strong when she was young, she put great effort into making it to the age of one hundred with the same virtues. Thus were the years of the life of Sarah.
Concerning King Saul, it is written, “A year-old Saul in his reign” (I Samuel 13:1). Concerning this, the Sages ask, “Was Saul really one year old? He was an adult! However, he was like a child of one year that did not know the taste of sin” (Yoma 22b). Such was Saul.
Man’s goal in this world is to arrive at perfection, which is to say that his entire life should be, from beginning to end, without stain or sin. This can only occur if one progresses “from strength to strength.” This is similar to a person that is born, grows up and becomes old: He is nevertheless the same person from the time that he is born until the time he dies. It is only his body and limbs that grow; the person remains the same. At the beginning of life his limbs are small, and later they are large. In the same way, man is born with a pure soul, and he must live his life from beginning to end without altering it. Even as his limbs and body do not change into something else, but rather slowly transform over time from that of a child to that of an aged person, so too must a man better his spiritual situation. He must become greater, progress in his knowledge of Torah, and increase his good deeds, similar to what is written: “And the man became great, and grew greater and greater until he became very great” (Genesis 26:13).
Sarah was at one hundred years as at twenty, and at twenty as at seven. She was at seven years old as at twenty, and at twenty as at one hundred, meaning to say that she never tasted of sin, but progressed without fail in her service of G-d.
This clearly explains why the verse repeats, “These were the years of Sarah’s life.” The life of Sarah was made up of years that had two aspects to them (in Hebrew, the expression shnei chayei can mean “two lives”). The word chayei has the same numerical value in Hebrew as the word koach (“strength”), which shows that she had acquired extraordinary strength during her life in this world. “At seven years old as at twenty” shows that when she was seven, she was as serious as a young woman of twenty who has a sense of responsibility, and that she demanded of herself behavior befitting that of a young woman. “And at twenty as at one hundred” indicates that at twenty years old she had the settled mind of an old sage, of which it is said, “the older they grow, the more stable their minds become” (end of Tractate Kinim) and “they become more and more wise” (Shabbat 152a). Wisdom increases with age, but the Torah witnesses of Sarah that at the age of twenty she already had extraordinary spiritual strength. Sarah lived an exemplary life.
Furthermore, Sarah possessed another character trait that is just as difficult to acquire. “At seven years old as at twenty” means to say that at twenty years old, she served G-d as a child of seven years, with great innocent faith, since a child does not have an evil inclination, and moreover the Heavenly Court only punishes beginning from the age of twenty (Bamidbar Rabba 18:3), meaning that it is as if a child does not commit any sins. In the same way, at the age of one hundred, at the age when an old woman is weak and without any strength, she served G-d with vigor as at twenty years of age, in full possession of all her strength.
The one who serves G-d in his old age with the same vigor as in his youth merits that which is stated: “Happy is youth that has not brought shame to old age” (Sukkah 53a). In his old age, he will not be ashamed of his youth. In extending this concept, we clearly understand that there are hidden sources of energy in every man, and that he should realize his potential by the observance of the commandments and the service of G-d throughout his entire life.
Each man has natural strength, known and available to him, which he puts into practice so as not to profane Shabbat, not to steal, not to murder, to honor his parents as he should – things obvious to everyone. Yet in concert with this, there is the hidden strength of his soul, strength that he must awaken and put into use. He must also create and acquire strength that he does not naturally have. It is said concerning Rabbi Tarphon that when his mother’s shoes had torn, he put the palms of his hands on the ground so that his mother could place her feet on them. Insofar as she accepted that he do this, this gesture demonstrated his mother’s great spiritual strength, as well as demonstrating a great acquiescence on the part of Rabbi Tarphon, who begged his mother to walk on his hands. Despite this, when he fell ill the Sages told Rabbi Tarphon’s mother, “He still hasn’t arrived at half of what the law demands in order to honor one’s parents.” The Torah does not reveal the reward for keeping the commandments because each commandment, even the simplest ones, can be performed with immeasurable love and devotion. Therefore there is no reason to reveal the reward that follows for keeping a commandment. The same action can demand a great self-sacrifice or very little effort, and the Torah rewards the effort and the true intention, not the act in and of itself. It is not possible to know the reward, because the performance of a commandment can be without limit in its perfection. Man possesses hidden strengths that allow him to attain the summit of perfection, and everything that he joyfully adds by himself is appreciated and valued by G-d.
Concerning G-d, it is said that “in His goodness He renews each day, continuously, the work of Creation.” In other words, the world ages according to natural laws, yet it is renewed and rejuvenated from day to day. In the same way, man has hidden strengths that are renewed each day. In his old age he can feel young. It is like a man on a boat who can no longer row because he has no strength left, the oars dropping from his hands. Then suddenly, drawing new energy, he seizes the oars and overcomes the waves to row the boat successfully to shore. It is the same with spiritual strength. Every man should draw from within himself new strength, for each man possesses the capability to renew his strength, in multiplying in himself that which he already naturally has. This is possible because he has received, along with his free will, the ability to do so. All depends on his will and the effort that he puts into maintaining and developing his natural strength.
It is not enough to study Torah and to perform its commandments. We are also obligated to devote all our efforts to it, in the sense of what Rabbi Israel Salanter, of blessed memory, said when he stated, “Putting effort into Torah, this is the sweat that actually beads off one’s brow during Torah study.” It is thus when we are really “occupied with Torah” and that we truly progress “from strength to strength.”
When G-d wanted to give the Torah to Israel, He said, “Present Me with guarantors who will ensure that you will obey it” (Tanhuma Vayigash 2). G-d refused to accept those who received the Torah as guarantors for themselves. He also refused the proposal of the Patriarchs, as well as the Prophets, as guarantors. However when Israel said, “Our children will be our guarantors,” G-d accepted this guarantee and gave them the Torah.
It must be explained why G-d did not just say right away to Israel, “I will give you My Torah on condition that your children be guarantors,” and why He waited until Israel themselves presented their children as such.
Is seems that G-d simply wanted to give the Children of Israel the liberty of choosing their guarantors. If they really wanted to perform the Torah, they had the obligation to choose guarantors that would assure the continuity of its practice. If they truly desired the Torah, G-d wanted to demonstrate to them – by allowing them to choose their guarantors – that their desire should be sincere.
How do their children constitute a guarantee? Great certainty is required to make one’s children a guarantee. A man is naturally prepared to sacrifice his life for his children, especially for an only child. However in this case, he is risking the life of his children by making them guarantors for himself, in the sense of that which it is stated, “[I visit] the iniquity of fathers upon children” (Exodus 20:5). Accepting that their children be their guarantors was a great risk that they took, yet it demonstrated their firm conviction to uphold the Torah. Being ready to put one’s children’s lives at risk reveals exceptional confidence that the Torah will always be observed.