“Their Years are Whole”
“And Sara’s life was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sara’s life”: “God knows the days of the whole[hearted], and their inheritance will be forever” (Tehillim 37:8) – just as they are whole[hearted], so their years are whole. [Sarah] was as beautiful at age twenty as she was at age seven; at age one hundred as innocent as she was at age twenty… For what reason does the verse end with the [seemingly redundant] words, “the years of Sara’s life”? To tell us that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God both in this world and in the world to come. (Bereishit Rabba 58,1)
Why are we informed that Sara is beloved to God – something that is not hinted to in relation to other righteous figures? If we look at what the Torah tells us about Sara, we find nothing sensational; we read of no great revolutions that she carried out. Moreover, the Torah mentions some misdeeds and weaknesses. The first time that the text records her affliction of Hagar, Ramban comments (Bereishit 16:6) that Sara “sinned in this affliction.” Later we are told that she laughed when informed that she would give birth – another expression of human weakness. Further on she decides to send Hagar and Yishmael away, and although God tells Avraham to listen to her, this does not necessarily validate her thinking. Apparently, the Torah wants to tell us that we do not need to be supernatural and to achieve extraordinary things to be righteous individuals “beloved by God.” One can also reach this level through simple human conduct.
The first part of the midrash offers another lesson, too. It compares the different stages of Sara’s life, and concludes that her years were “whole.” It seems that Sara was able to make the most of every period in her life, adjusting as necessary. One’s life should not be monotonous. Not everything that is suitable for a youngster of twenty is suitable for a sixty-year-old. A person must make the most of his youth, and should also behave at each stage of his life in an appropriate manner.
Moreover, a person must learn from experience. A person cannot behave his whole life in the same way; he must learn from his mistakes and progress in light of what he has come to know and understand. On the other hand, it is also praiseworthy to achieve a state in which one’s “years are whole” – i.e., that it becomes possible to speak about his life as a whole, as something complete. A person need not go on experimenting his whole life, trying out something and then, if this is not successful, jumping to something else. A person must follow a certain path, and within that path one may advance, progress and improve through experience. “And Avraham was old, advanced in age (ba ba-yamim)” (Bereishit 24:1) – the Zohar teaches that Avraham came [to old age] with all his days (ba im kol ha-yamim); i.e., he had used each individual moment properly, and had achieved each and every day that which was required on that day. Nevertheless, he came “with all his days” comprising a whole, each day having contributed something to his personality and his conduct.
The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39, 3) relates the following verse to Avraham:
“We have a little sister, and she has no breasts… if she is a wall, we will build upon her a battlement of silver, and if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.” (Shir Ha-shirim 8:8-9)
Avraham had not received a proper religious education in his youth, and had to construct an entirely new edifice of Judaism. Knowing that “enclosures of boards of cedar” are temporary, he decided, “I am a wall” (Shir Ha-shirim 8:10) – meaning, “I establish my own word”. Avraham built a strong, stable edifice, not trying out one thing one day and something else the next day, but rather laying strong foundations and then gradually building upon them.
There is another point here. A person must also adapt his ways to the period in which he lives; he must not ignore what is around him and the processes going on outside. We find that the shekalim used to purchase the Temple sacrifices were raised each year anew; the money from last year could not be used for this year’s sacrifices. Every year is different. Our conduct must be up-to-date and suited to the times.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, parashat Chayei Sara 5758 .)