We know that words matter. In studying the text of the Torah, not only words, but the order of the words, matters. Rabbi Akiva even found meaning in the tagim, the crowns atop the letters of the words. Revealing a deeper meaning or new understanding of a verse that seems so simple underscores the majesty of Torah; for me, it is part of the energy and excitement I feel when learning and teaching it. The juxtaposition of simplicity and depth is on full display in the first verse of this week’s parashah; the way in which the years of Sarah’s life are laid out reveals the essence of the life she lived and the woman she was.
Parashat Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23, opens with these words: “And Sarah’s life was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, [these were] the years of Sarah’s life” (translation: mine). Before even getting into what this verse implies and why it is constructed this way, it is important to point out that it is also a prime example of the shortcomings of translation. The Hebrew word for life is chayim, which is in the plural form; the literal translation of the opening words — vayihiyu chayei Sarah — is “and these were the lives of Sarah.” The fact that life in Hebrew is plural is, in and of itself, conveying important information; human existence is not one moment or unidimensional. Rather, it is the sum of each moment a person lives; put another way, a life is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Our deep dive into this verse begins with Rashi, quoting a midrash that is possibly more familiar than the verse itself. The implied question he is addressing is “Why does the word “years” follow each number? Why doesn’t the Torah simply state “one hundred twenty-seven years”? It says it this way, teaches Rashi, because each number is its own unit: at 100, Sarah was as beautiful as a 20-year-old, and at 20 she was as pure as a 7-year-old. The verse ends with the words “[these were] the years of Sarah’s life” to teach that all the years were equal; i.e., she was always pure and always beautiful. The Gur Aryeh, a supercommentary on Rashi, more commonly known as the Maharal of Prague, adds that the Torah is purposely writing the verse this way so as to beg the question; the question then leads to the answer which leads to the lesson. Sarah was consistent in both body and spirit. Sarah endured many traumas during her life: leaving her home for an unknown land, being taken hostage by both Pharaoh and Avimelech, decades of infertility, and finally, not knowing whether her miraculously-late-conceived son had survived the journey with his knife-toting father to another unknown locale. Nevertheless, her essence remained unchanged; the purity of her spirit infused the cells of her body and gave her both beauty and fortitude.
Ramban strongly disagrees with Rashi. He points out that this verse is typical of the style of the text when summing up the years of one’s life, and he cites a number of examples where the formula “year/ year/years” is employed. Furthermore, in the case of Ishmael (25:17), where this same formula is used, the years of his life were not an organic whole. Ishmael committed some kind of evil against his brother, evil enough that he was expelled from his father’s home with God’s stamp of approval, but by the end of his life he and Isaac buried their father together. According to the Midrash, Ishmael completely repented. Rabbenu Bachye, Ramban’s student, explains the verse with astute insight, presaging Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages and revealing a deep understanding of human development.
Rabbenu Bachye writes that there are three stages to a person’s life: childhood, adulthood and old age. During childhood, a person is growing rapidly; one’s physical, cognitive and spiritual facets are increasing both quantitatively and qualitatively. Childhood ends, more or less, at about age 20 — according to the Mishnah, 20 is when one is fully responsible for all of one’s actions, obligations and finances. Adulthood is the time of physical and mental stability; while there is incontrovertible progress, it is more incremental. And old age is the period of decline.
For Sarah, however, there was perpetual growth; her physical, cognitive and spiritual telomeres seemed endless. At her death she was vibrant in all ways a human could be. It is fascinating that the research emerging on human aging and longevity supports this understanding: people who live unusually long lives and remain both physically and cognitively healthy seem to possess exceptional mental and/or spiritual vitality, seemingly keeping them almost-forever young.
The Kli Yakar, on the other hand, focuses on the fact that the word “years” in the plural, as opposed to “year” in the singular, actually follows the smallest number only. He presents a comforting, even uplifting message, one which stands in stark contrast to the Western fear of aging and death. He says that chasidim — people who dedicate their lives to serving God and humanity — understand that as one gets older, and closer to dying, things actually increase, and become “more.” More wisdom, more insight, more patience, more ability to reflect and integrate everything one has learned and experienced. When such a person nears the end, they can perceive the eternal light and recognize the muchness of their life. Erikson names this final stage “integration,” Viktor Frankl discusses the culmination of “meaning-making,” and Kubla-Ross calls it “acceptance.” At the end of Sarah’s tumultuous life, she was able to reflect on her life in retrospect and grasp how everything came to be, what she had learned, and what would be her legacy. One could even say that she was at peace.
These are the lives of Sarah: young, middle-aged, old. Daughter, niece, wife, mother, woman. Believing, arguing, fighting, accepting, celebrating. Innocent, traumatic, triumphant. A life as complete and complex as an exquisite tapestry.
So may each of ours be.