What does it mean to lead a “noble life”? For the rabbinic sages, Abraham clearly set the standard. Abraham was not perfect (No one is!), but Abraham, throughout his long life, taught us that a life of involvement with others, and the care and concern for their well-being make life worth living. It was Abraham who rescued his nephew when he was captured, who stood up for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who was magnanimous in his hospitality, and whose life was marked with acts of “tzedakah – righteous acts to help others. All of these things, above and beyond his tremendous faith (or on account of it), marked him as extraordinaire.
When one looks over even this very partial list of his accomplishments, it is obvious why the sages interpreted the verse: “Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things” (Genesis 24:1), with the following verse from Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained by the way of righteousness.” (Proverbs 16:31) The point of this association is obvious. The noble or worthy life is attained through righteousness – upstanding behavior and doing and sharing with others. The tradition, at least didactically, wants us to learn from this that such behavior also brings with it the blessing of longevity as well.
The book of Samuel relates the story of the sons of Eli, the High Priest, whose corrupt dealings in the Sanctuary at Shiloh ruined their family’s reputation. (1 Samuel 2:12-17) Their sleazy practices so incensed God that he issued a decree against Eli’s progeny that throughout the generations they would all die young. (See 1 Samuel 2:33) Nearly a thousand years later, the rabbinic sages recounted the following story: “Rabbi Meir came to the city of Mamleh. He saw that no one there had grey hair. Remembering the decree, he asked the residence of the town if they were descendants of Eli? They confirmed his suspicions and implored him to pray for their wellbeing so that God might avert this agelong decree. Instead of offering them his prayers, he advised them to follow Abraham’s model and imbue their lives with acts of tzedakah. Surely this would change their fate.” (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 59:1)
The point of this story is that acts of tzedakah have the potential to be transformative both in remaking a person and a person’s reputation. We are only stuck with who we are if we remain the same. Using Abraham as a model, Rabbi Meir reminds us of how powerful caring for others can be.