Endeavoring to Understand the Midrash

Our Sages1 associate the verse:2 “And Sarah’s life was 127 years…,” with the quote:3G‑d knows the days of the righteous,” and explain: “Just as they are perfect, so too their years are perfect.” The Midrash continues, explaining that this concept is exemplified by Sarah, whose years were complete; there was nothing lacking to the time with which she was endowed.

The question arises: Before and after Sarah’s life, there were many righteous men and women whose “years were perfect.” Why is Sarah chosen as the paradigm?

The explanation is that the continuous Divine service of other righteous men and women was rewarded with the fulfillment of G‑d’s promise:4 “I will fill the span of your days,” i.e., they were given a long life. When years were taken from the lifetime of a righteous man,5 it indicates that that person’s Divine service was lacking. Sarah, by contrast, passed away before her time because of an external factor her soul expired when she was told of the binding of Yitzchak6 and yet “her years were perfect.” Since this is a unique phenomenon, her example is cited to illustrate this concept.

Nevertheless, since the lessons taught by the Torah are extremely precise, it is unlikely that this is the only reason the Midrash associates this idea with Sarah. Indeed, the reason stated above that her days were full despite the fact that she died before her time does not contribute anything to our understanding. Moreover, the implication is that the concept of “complete years” shares more of a connection with Sarah than with other righteous people.

Another question arises: What is the intent in describing the righteous as “perfect”? It could not be to indicate that they are perfect in their observance of the 613 mitzvos, for this can be inferred by the very word “righteous.” This applies even when considering the simple meaning of the term; how much more so when taking into consideration the meaning as described in Tanya.7

By using the term “perfect,” the Midrash appears to be pointing to an attribute of the righteous aside from their observance of mitzvos. What is this quality?

A further point: When the Torah associates two concepts, the implication is that there is an inner link, or that one concept leads to the other. So when the Midrash says: “Just as they are perfect, so too their years are perfect,” it is hinting that the perfection of the righteous shares an inner connection with, or leads to, the perfection of their years.

This is difficult to understand. On the surface, the very fact that these individuals are righteous and have carried out their Divine service in observing the mitzvos is sufficient reason for “their days to be perfect.” (As stated above, the promise to “fill the span of your days” refers to a reward granted for continuous Divine service.) It is thus necessary to understand why the Midrash associates the perfection of a righteous person’s years with the perfection of the righteous person himself.

Is Advanced Age Avraham’s Greatness?

The above difficulties can be resolved by referring to a comment of the Midrash on another verse in this Torah reading. On the verse,8 “Avraham was old, advanced in years,” the Midrash comments:9 “There are men who are old, but who are not advanced in years, and others who [appear] advanced in years, but are not old. In this instance, his age paralleled his advancement in years, and his advancement in years paralleled his age.”

The commentaries to the Midrash10 explain that there are times when a person appears elderly although he is not advanced in years, e.g., R. Elazar ben Azariah, who looked like an old man, despite the fact that he was only 18.11 And conversely, there are men who are advanced in years but who appear much younger. In Avraham’s instance, his appearance matched his chronological age.

This entire passage is somewhat problematic, because both an elderly appearance and chronological age are seemingly superficial qualities. How could they express the greatness of Avraham our Patriarch?

“Avraham possessed singular uniqueness.”12 In a world of idolaters, he was the only one who worshipped G‑d. It was he who “began to illuminate,”13 reflecting G‑dly light within the world. Avraham ushered in a new epoch in the world’s history the two millennia of Torah.14 Why then did the Torah choose to associate his greatness with chronological age and an elderly appearance? The fact that the Torah makes such an association, nevertheless, indicates that there is indeed something about the possession of these two qualities which expresses Avraham’s greatness.

Spiritual, Rather than Material Attributes

The terms used by the Torah for these two qualities: זקן and בא בימים are both subject to interpretation by our Sages: זקן is interpreted15 as “one who acquired wisdom.” בא בימים is interpreted16 as meaning: “He comes with his days,” i.e., there was not a single day in which Avraham did not observe mitzvos. (This refers, of course, to the mitzvos as they existed before the giving of the Torah.)

Thus the two qualities mentioned by the Torah refer to two spiritual qualities. זקן refers to the perfection of Avraham’s soul that his soul acquired wisdom. בא בימים refers to what he accomplished that he was able to fill each day with mitzvos.

The intent is not to report merely that Avraham performed many mitzvos, but to indicate that each of his days was filled with mitzvos. Were the purpose to say only that mitzvos contributed to his personal development, it would not make any difference whether he had fulfilled these mitzvos on every one of his days, or he had performed the same number of mitzvos on one day. For with regard to his soul, we are speaking about the same amount of mitzvos. The attribute of בא בימים refers to what one has accomplished in each of one’s days. It therefore follows that each day is associated with a particular mitzvah.

Two Directions of Growth

In general, the difference between the Torah and its mitzvos can be explained as follows:17 The Torah is G‑d’s wisdom, an intellectual and spiritual entity. When a Jew studies the Torah, he advances and develops his soul. Mitzvos, by contrast, are enclothed in material existence. Their performance is not intended primarily for the development of the soul, but rather to illuminate the material dimensions of the world at large, and in this way transform it into a dwelling for G‑d.

Therefore, when speaking about wisdom (i.e., the Torah), our Sages use the expression: “one who has acquired wisdom,” for the intent is to say that one brings the Torah’s wisdom into one’s soul. When, however, the Torah speaks about the performance of mitzvos, it uses the expression, בא בימים , implying that the person’s energy is directed outward; through his observance of mitzvos, he refines the world. And this involves the passage of time a fundamental aspect of our material realm as indicated by the expression “advanced in years.”

There is another point alluded to by the use of an expression involving time. In contrast to material entities which remain unchanged, e.g., the heavenly bodies, the sun and the stars, which are “as strong as they were on the day they were created,”18 time involves change.

Even on the earth, there are entities that have been endowed with a measure of eternity, e.g., the Sanctuary,19 the ark and the anointing oil20 made by Moshe are eternal. At present, they are entombed, but in the Era of the Redemption, they will emerge. G‑d’s intent, however, is that a dwelling for Him be established in this material world,21 the lowest of realms. As such, the dwelling must encompass even those aspects of material existence which are affected by change. This is implied by the expression “advanced in years.”

Working With Oneself and With Others

Based on the above, we can understand the uniqueness of the fact that Avraham’s chronological age paralleled his appearance. The implication is that his personal development (זקן) was thoroughly coupled with his achievements in the world (בא בימים). These are two different and to a certain degree, opposite thrusts, and there are few who can combine them. For example, the text Maggid Meisharim22 relates that R. Yosef Karo was told that he had merited to die as a martyr, and to be burnt al Kiddush HaShem, for the Sanctification of G‑d’s Name. Afterwards, however, because of an incidental factor, he was not granted this opportunity.

Had he died a martyr’s death, he would have reached the peak of personal development (זקן), but would not have been able to compose the Shulchan Aruch, the text which serves as the guideline for Jewish law; the merit of the composition of that text would have been given to another individual. In actuality, R. Yosef Karo did author the Shulchan Aruch. He thereby made a contribution to the world at large (בא בימים), but at the expense of achieving the peak of martyrdom. For himself, his personal development would have been crowned by such self-sacrifice, and indeed, having that rung withheld is considered a punishment.

In Avraham’s instance, there was no such dichotomy. His personal development and his achievements in the world were perfectly coupled. It is therefore appropriate that the Midrash singles out Avraham as the one who began to illuminate the world with G‑dly light.

The Trailblazer of the Torah’s Path

The above also enables us to understand the statement of our Sages that Avraham’s Divine service began “the two millennia of Torah.” As reflected in the expression,23 “The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants,” the Divine service of the Patriarchs, and particularly of Avraham, the first Jew, began the preparations for the giving of the Torah.

The giving of the Torah brought about a fusion between the material and the spiritual realms. To quote the illustration given by the Midrash:24

To what can the matter be likened? To a king who made a decree: the inhabitants of Rome will not descend to Syria, and the inhabitants of Syria will not ascend to Rome.

In a similar way, when G‑d created the world, He decreed:25 “The heavens are the heavens of G‑d, and earth He has granted to man.” When He desired to give the Torah, He nullified this initial decree, saying the lower realms will ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms will descend to the lower realms.

The giving of the Torah made it possible for spirituality to be fused with material existence through the observance of the mitzvos. The preparations for this fusion began with the Divine service of Avraham our Patriarch, for this fusion was reflected in his efforts. This is illustrated by the coupling of his efforts toward personal development (זקן) with his achievements in the world at large (בא בימים).

The righteous men who existed before Avraham, in the two millennia of Tohu (the term means “void,” for these 2,000 years did not share any connection to the giving of the Torah) lacked this drive towards fusion. Their Divine service encompassed either personal development or efforts within the world; there was no fusion of the two.

This reflects the spiritual climate of the era of Tohu. As explained in Chassidus,26 the emotional attributes of Tohu were each revealed independently, without any interrelation. As such, each attribute did not allow for the expression of any other.

To apply these concepts in terms of our Divine service: There were righteous men whose service focused only on personal development (זקן). To cite an example from a later period, consider Ben Azzai, who did not marry, saying “My soul firmly desires the Torah.”27 He devoted himself to Torah study without having anything to do with worldly matters.

Similarly, before Avraham’s time, there were others who devoted themselves solely to efforts with others (בא בימים) 28 without seeking personal development. Avraham was the first to fuse both thrusts.

To emphasize this, the Midrash highlights the fact that Avraham possessed both qualities. It’s true that others, e.g., Yehoshua and David, as cited in the Midrash, also possessed both qualities, but Avraham was the first.

This was the beginning of the two millennia of Torah. For the purpose of the Torah is to unify different and even opposite tendencies, as the Rambam states:29 “In its entirety, the Torah was given to establish peace within the world.” And peace implies the coordination and fusion of opposing tendencies, thrusts which require that peace be established between them.

A Singe Path is not Sufficient

Like all the narratives of the Torah, the narrative which relates that Avraham was “Old, advanced in years,” serves as a directive for our Divine service.30 There are some individuals who continuously pursue worldly achievement, without showing any concern for their own development. Others devote their energies to furthering their own spiritual development.

This is a never-ending process. For the further a person proceeds in his spiritual development, the more he realizes the endlessness of his journey and the need to proceed onward. “As one increases knowledge, one increases pain,”31 i.e., the pain of knowing that there is an untouched frontier ahead. And as one advances, one desires to advance even further, as reflected in our Sages’ statement:32 “Whoever possesses 100 desires 200.” Involved in his desire for personal growth, such a person may forget about spreading light to his surroundings.

Avraham’s fusion of these qualities teaches us that every Jew must endeavor to achieve both זקן and בא בימים , and establish harmony between the two. For as mentioned previously, the Torah is characterized by unity, harmony, and peace.

Creating a Dwelling for G‑d

Although there is a need for effort along both paths, Chassidus places greater emphasis on בא בימים , the drive to refine the world at large. This can be explained based on the chassidic interpretation33 of our Sages’ statement:34 “One hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is better than all the life of the World to Come.”

The World to Come reflects the pleasure which man, a created being, will experience from the revelation of G‑dliness. Our Divine service of teshuvah and good deeds, by contrast, brings G‑d pleasure. This Divine pleasure is incomparably greater than the pleasure experienced by man, for in no way can a created being and his pleasure be equated with the Creator and His pleasure. As such, the teshuvah and good deeds we perform in this world surpass the pleasure we will experience in the World to Come.

In a similar vein, the Divine service associated with the quality of זקן , i.e., a person’s own development, cannot be compared with the service associated with בא בימים , illuminating the world at large. For it is the latter service which fulfills G‑d’s intent in creation, establishing a dwelling for Him in this world. And this brings Him pleasure.

For this reason, the Rebbeim always highlighted the importance of carrying out G‑d’s intention in creation, by expressing that intent in the lowest levels of existence material entities that are subject to time and change.

The Divine service which transforms this world into a dwelling for G‑d is more relevant in the present age a time of darkness and concealment than ever before. This is particularly true here in America, where attention is so focused on material things. Moreover, this desire for material things is subject to the vicissitudes of change. For example, every day one needs a different wardrobe35 ; otherwise a person feels that he or she is lacking. It is particularly in such an environment that it is necessary to transform these material entities, which are in constant flux, into a dwelling for He of whom it is said:36 “I G‑d have not changed.”

When One’s Divine Service Fluctuates

The Divine service associated with בא בימים is relevant, not only with regard to one’s efforts in the world at large, but with regard to one’s own self. Every Jew has certain mitzvos which he observes continually and habitually. For one person, it will be the mitzvah of charity which he will be more accustomed to fulfilling. For another, it will be the punctilious recitation of the Shema , and for a third, it will be still another mitzvah. Every person has, however, certain mitzvos which he does not observe with such regularity. On the contrary, his observance of these mitzvos fluctuates from time to time, and he must apply more effort to observe them.

The person might thus think: Why should I put effort into matters that will not become ingrained in my character easily? It seems more profitable to invest energy in those matters which will be perpetuated. Moreover, the fact that the observance of certain mitzvos comes more naturally to him, and are not subject to change, indicates (apparently, and perhaps in truth), that they share a deeper connection to his soul, the fundamental Jewish spark which is above change. As such, one might conclude that it would be preferable to enhance those energies which are more closely related to this essence.

In this context, Avraham’s service of בא בימים teaches each of us the importance of having our Divine service encompass matters which are subject to change, for it is through such service that G‑d’s desire for a dwelling in the lower realms is accomplished.

As explained in the writings of the AriZal, and in Chassidus,37 every soul has a particular mitzvah, and a mission to achieve certain goals, which lead to the fulfillment of its purpose in descending into this world. The fact that difficulties arise with regard to certain matters indicates that the essence of one’s mission involves these matters. Since this is the fundamental duty with which the person is charged, the yetzer hora (evil inclination) presents the greatest challenges to hinder its fulfillment.38

As such it is demanded of every Jew that he or she not despair should certain dimensions of the Torah and its mitzvos not be thoroughly ingrained within their nature, or if from time to time their observance becomes weaker. Indeed, even if, heaven forbid, one begins to doubt the fundamentals of one’s faith, one should not lose hope. On the contrary, one should concentrate one’s Divine service precisely in those areas where fluctuation is felt. When one does this, one’s efforts will surely be reinforced with help from above.

Sarah’s Perfection

On the above basis, we can comprehend the wording of our Sages’ statement: “Just as they are perfect, so too, their years are perfect,” and also comprehend the advantage which this attribute of perfection contributes to a righteous person.


Even a person whose Divine service centers on one vector alone can be described as righteous, as mentioned previously with regard to the righteous men who lived during the two millennia of Tohu. Perfection, by contrast, implies that a person’s Divine service is multi-faceted; that it is perfect in both thrusts of Divine service, following the example by which Avraham initiated the two millennia of Torah.

Because “they the righteous are perfect…, their years are perfect.” Just as in their own Divine service they unify two opposite tendencies, so too, “their years are perfect,” the years (i.e., the changes40 they undergo) are perfect. They are able to manifest their spiritual perfection even in matters which are subject to change, making them also perfect.

For this reason, our Sages described Sarah at the time of her death as “perfect.” For it was Avraham and Sarah who began the preparations for the giving of the Torah; they blazed the path towards unity and synthesis which brought opposite thrusts together.

This concept also relates to the explanation given previously, that Sarah’s years are described as perfect, despite the fact that she died before her time. Although “her soul expired” at the time of the akeidah, “her years were perfect.” This reflects a fusion of two opposite thrusts. The expiration of a person’s soul reflects a desire to rise above the limits of this world. This runs contrary to the thrust of בא בימים , involvement in the world, and relates more to the thrust of זקן , seeking one’s own personal development. Therefore the Midrash underscores the fact that despite the strength of this thrust, “her years were perfect,” i.e., she also possessed the advantage of בא בימים.

Torah’s Inner Dimension

The above concepts share a special connection to this year, as reflected by the fact that this Torah portion is read on the Shabbos during which the month of Kislev is blessed. Kislev is the third month, the month in which Pnimiyus HaTorah, the inner dimension of the Torah, is revealed.41 Pnimiyus HaTorah represents the ultimate fusion of opposite thrusts, as the Zohar states:42 “There (in Pnimiyus HaTorah), there are no questions which stem from the side of evil, nor any differences of opinion which stem from the spirit of impurity.” On the contrary, this approach is characterized by peace and synthesis.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah, 5722)