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Aging with Grace

Aging with Grace


"Once there was a man who filmed his vacation. He went flying down the river in his boat with his video camera to his eye, making a moving picture of the moving river upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly toward the end of his vacation. He showed his vacation to his camera, which pictured it, preserving it forever: the river, the trees, the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat behind which he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it. It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be. But he would not be in it. He would never be in it."—Wendell Berry1

Seizing the Moment

V'Avraham v'Sara zekeinim ba'im bayamim. "Now, Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years."2

If Abraham and Sarah were old, isn't it obvious that they were well on in years?3

They were always totally "there"

But the Hebrew word ba'im literally means "entering." And the literal translation of bayamim is "in the days."

Hence the literal translation of the verse is: "And Abraham and Sarah were old, they entered in the days…"

They entered each day as one would enter his home, fully and without reserve. They connected with each moment and held it close. They embraced time and allowed themselves to be embraced by it.

They were always totally "there," whenever and wherever they were.

Thus, the first half of the verse refers to the amount of years, very many of them, that Abraham and Sarah lived. The second half informs us of the manner in which those years were lived.

They were no stranger to hardship; they were often its host—but they never sought escape. They didn't hide when faced with difficulties; they dealt, as best as they could.

Ignoring a moment's call, they believed, is ignoring its caller.

They truly lived life in the here and now.

Wrinkle Free

Chassidim are wont to say that age isn't told by your ID card.

Ever noticed that two people could be the same age, perhaps born on the same day, even led similar lives—yet one of them is wrinkle-free, while the other one looks ancient?

The former never let things get to him; the latter rarely did not.

The former built impregnable walls around him, afraid to fight a war; the latter's face is filled with furrows, his battle scars.

The former has an intricate defense system, mechanisms to ward off pain; the latter decided to never build one, viewing such a system – not the pain – as the enemy.

To him any form of blocking out life equals death.

Painkillers – literal or figurative – also numb joy

Because the impenetrable walls built for security don't distinguish between hate and love. They do their job indiscriminately, keeping out friend and foe alike.

Painkillers – literal or figurative – also numb joy.

Wrinkles are often a sign of hardship and grief, but they also tell the story of laughter and joy.

Time to rethink Botox?

Keeping Young

V'Avraham zaken ba bayamim. "Now, Abraham was old, well on years…"4

This verse is stated a full forty-one years after the first verse describing Abraham's (and Sarah's) age.5 Why the need for a second report?6 Isn't obvious that, unless you're Benjamin Button, someone old and well on in years only gets older and weller on-in-years as time passes?

Were this verse to refer to the quantity of years Abraham had lived, the question would stand. But it does not; it refers, again, to the quality of Abraham's life.

It is within the nature of man to grow less excitable the more he ages. For excitement and novelty are closely related. Since very little is new to him – he's seen it all – things, good or bad, rarely affect him. His mode of existence, views, and reactions are pretty much set in stone.

But Abraham was different.

He never grew old in that sense. He might have aged in years but not in spirit. He was as open to learning and change like a youngster on his first day of school.

This is the Torah's point in stating the same verse twice.

Forty-one years had passed between them, years filled with suffering and joy. Yet, Abraham was still young at heart.

In those four decades, the entire region of Sodom had been destroyed. Sarah had been abducted by Abimelech and released.

After a lifetime of barrenness, Sarah bore him a son!

He had been brought to drive Hagar and Ishmael out of his home. There was the dispute over his property with Abimelech. Then the truce.

He opened an inn in the meantime. Then embarked on a groundbreaking campaign to promote monotheism.

He was reunited with his penitent son, Ishmael.

He was tested by G‑d many times over, culminating with the traumatic Binding of Isaac.

Most recently, his life companion and rock, his beloved Sarah, had died.

So many challenges, so many milestones, so much change…

So many challenges, so many milestones, so much change… Yet, Abraham still hadn't grown old. Older in years perhaps, but not old in character.

He had every right, by now, to stop "entering" his days; but he considered that right to be wrong.

He had every excuse in the world to retire from vigorous living; But to retire would mean to expire.

Until his last day he would never stop taking messages from life.

He wore his flowing white beard and matching head of hair as one would a badge of honor. The crinkles around his eyes that hinted of countless smiles, he considered beauty marks.

What's in It for Me?

Sometimes we're so busy making a living that we forget to live. Sometimes we're so busy doing that we forget about being.

Sometimes we're so busy dodging life's curveballs that we forget to swing at its strikes.

Time passed does not mean time lived. Time managed does not mean time well spent.

Always remain open—in mind, spirit, heart, and soul, for learning never ends.7

Every day has its song. Every hour its call. Every second offers something unique and fleeting.

Every moment is heaven knocking at your door.

To be sure, the hurts of life are sometimes excruciating, and rightfully call for a needed respite, but the keys to the gates erected must always be retained, otherwise one's castle can become one's prison.8


From Entries, by Wendell Berry. New York: Pantheon, 1994.


See Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 49:16 for alternative answers. See the Rebbe's talk, upon which this essay is based, for a lengthy discussion regarding those answers.


See Likkutei Sichot vol. 35 pg. 89 footnote 3 for the calculation.


See Kli Yakar and Nachmanides for alternative answers. See the Rebbe's talk for more discussion of Nachmanides' answer.


Many have puzzled about the paradoxical term ascribed to a Torah scholar, "talmid chacham," which literally translates as "student-sage." Is he a student or is he a sage? I'd like to suggest, possibly the obvious, that the point here, influenced by Judaism's take on scholarship, is that a true scholar must always remain open to study, never ceasing to be a student. The two are synonymous, one and the same. The moment one concludes his studies and views himself as an established sage, he loses that very title.


Based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot vol. 35 pg. 89ff.

Illustration by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik; click here to view or purchase Mr. Muchnik's art.
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David Mark Margate November 14, 2014

Very Apropos I have a senior congregation. Yasher Koach! Reply

CK Brooklyn, NY November 15, 2009

To Anonymous, Bklyn This doesn't seem to be about where they were HOLDING, rather on where they WERE. They weren't focused on themselves; they were focused on being in the moment, on internalizing life, its experience, its meaning and its G-dliness.
It's the concept of being a "p'nimi", one who is completely present in whatever they are doing, not ever distracted or disconnected. When a person embraces each thing G-d sends his way and doesn't avoid being affected as completely as the experience offers, that is called living.
I would even propose that if one were busy thinking about how they rated at every step of life, it would be a huge impediment to actually living fully. So if anything, Reb Yochanan ben Zackai was probably so immersed in life and busy being in tune with the messages his Creator sent him, that he was unsure of his personal "standing". Reply

fire November 12, 2009

aging with grace... How many a time we dread as the years come in...but as we surrender our passing years to the author of life...we let Him hold our hand...and that certain Heavenly peace would flood our heart as each passing moment is a step nearer to that joy inexpressible when we are in the Father's bosom--no more pain, no more sickness, no more sufferings, but just pure Divine bliss worshiping Him each moment, eternally!
Thank you for the insightful sharing. Shalom! Reply

Ezza Amitai melbourne, australia November 11, 2009

The magical moment Just now I was staring into a pond, which was perfectly reflecting the foliage above it, and occasionally a ripple would make beautiful rings on the water's surface. I was totally and completely in the moment, wide awake and seeing the majesty and astonishment of G-d's creation. G-d has given me this priceless gift lately, thank G-d.
Now I read here that this is how Avraham and Sarah lived each moment of their lives; completely immersed in the ever-fleeting yet ever-present NOW.
Thank you Mr Kalmenson for your great article, and your commentary on this parsha. It's more than a story, it's a way of experiencing life in all its glory. Reply

Anonymous Brklyn, NY November 11, 2009

I don't understand Doesn't yiddishkeit focus on doing mitzvos more than focusing on yourself and every experience?
didn't RebYochnan ben Zackai say right before his death that he wasnt sure which way he would be led because he never stopped to focus on where exactly he was holding? Reply

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