You might expect Midrash Tanchuma on Chayei Sarah to have much to say on the two major themes of the Parsha – the prolonged negotiations for the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah where Sarah was buried and the miraculous mission of Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. Instead, the Midrash primarily discusses the importance of being productive later in life.
It all starts with this verse from the beginning of the Parsha:
“And Abraham was old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.” (Genesis 24:1)
Keep planting – a metaphor for life
Midrash Tanchuma draws from the wisdom of Solomon:
“Solomon said: If you have sown seeds in the early season, don’t hold back from planting later in the season as well,….”Because you don’t know which shall prosper.” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
One of the most dramatic examples of outstanding accomplishments in one’s later years can be drawn from the life story of the great Rebbe Akiva. Not only did he start studying Torah at the age of 40, his students from his later years assured the continuance of Torah knowledge to the next generation. Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rebbe Akiva:
“R. Akiba said: ‘In the morning sow thy seed and don’t hold back from planting in the evening.’ (Ecclesiastes. 11:6) means that if you have trained disciples in your youth, you should not cease to do so in your old age.”
A tragedy with a happy ending
The Talmud provides the historical context for the students of Rebbe Akiva.
“..They said that Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time. …And the world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them. … And these are the very ones who upheld the study of Torah at that time. Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations. (Talmud Yevamot 62B)
Commemorating Rebbe Akiva’s students
In fact, to this day, a limited degree of mourning is observed between Passover and Lag b’Omer out of respect for 24,000 students of Rebbe Akiva who died during this period. As the Talmud mentioned, Rebbe Akiva did not lose heart from this monumental loss. Rather he continued to teach Torah and produced students who were the greatest Tannaim – the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah. The Talmud is an analysis of the Mishnah and both are essential building blocks of the Oral Tradition. Without them, the Bible and all of Jewish law would be a closed book. That’s the kind of contribution Rebbe Akiva made to the Jewish People in his later years.
Having more children later in life
The Talmud continues with another lesson from Ecclesiastes. This time it’s about remarrying in your later years. A lesson learned from Abraham:
“Another explanation of ‘In the morning, sow thy seed’: R. Yosé held that this means: If you marry in your youth and your wife bears a child and then dies, you must remarry in your later years, for you have no way of knowing which offspring will be the worthiest.“
Abraham – the first person to age
As long as we are on the topic of old age, Midrash Tanchuma informs us that at one time there were no visible signs of old age. It all started as a special request from Abraham to G-d.
As you recall from last week’s Parsha (Vayera) Abraham tried to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah by negotiating with G-d that perhaps there were 10 righteous people. The Midrash records G-d’s praise for Abraham for this act of eloquence and beauty in trying to save innocent people. Abraham replied to G-d that as long as we are on the topic of beauty, he had a suggestion (which gave birth to the whole beauty industry):
“When my son and I enter a city, no one is capable of distinguishing between us.” (In those days) a man would live to be a hundred or two hundred years old without acquiring the distinguishing features of old age. “It is imperative, Master of the Universe, that You should distinguish between father and son, between old and young, so that the young will respect to the old.” The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “Be assured I will begin to distinguish between young and old with you.”
Although we may not like it, Abraham’s suggestion was a noble one. He wanted to introduce the idea of respecting elders. A critical element for one generation to pass on wisdom to the next. As you can see from the life of Rebbe Akiva, passing on the Mesorah (Torah knowledge) from one generation to the next is the lifeblood of Judaism.
The Midrash describes Abraham’s reaction when G-d put his suggestion into practice that very night:
“Abraham went to sleep, and when he arose in the morning he found that the hair of his head and beard had turned white. “Master of the Universe,” he exclaimed, “You have made me a public spectacle.” The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: Your grey hair is a crown of glory (Proverbs 16:31), and it says elsewhere: And the beauty of the elderly is their grey hair (ibid. 20:29). That’s why it says in our Parsha: “And Abraham was old… (Genesis 24:1)”
Grey hair is a crown from G-d
Perhaps Abraham needed a bit more encouragement after seeing what old age actually looks like. And feels like. So, according to the Midrash, G-d told him that the Prophet Daniel’s description of his vision of G-d included a crown of grey hair:
“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Abraham: Silver and gold I have given thee, as it is said: And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold (Gen. 13:1); now what can I give you beside the crown that is on My head? When Daniel beheld G-d, he said: “And the hair of his head was like pure wool “(Daniel 7:9).
So why did the Midrash focus so much on old age
Abraham is our Forefather. Our role model for extraordinary Chessed (loving kindness) and heroic faith. Perhaps it seems anticlimactic for this holy man to remarry and have more children. Nameless children whom we don’t meet. Everything Abraham did and everywhere he went was a lesson for eternity. Is there a lesson here as well? Do his actions in his old age have significance in our lives as well?
Perhaps this is the point of the Midrash. Abraham remained vital. He got married and had children. He didn’t see old age as waiting to die. Just the opposite. Abraham saw it as a time to continue to be vigorous and productive.
By absorbing this message from Abraham, Rebbe Akiva helped insure the continuity of Judaism.