Between the Lines—Hayyei Sarah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu


Genesis Rabbah 65:9

Hayyei Sarah Between the Lines Image 5772

Until Abraham there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Abraham might mistakenly find himself speaking with Isaac, or one who wished to speak with Isaac might mistakenly find himself speaking with Abraham. But when Abraham came, he pleaded for old age, saying, "Master of the Universe, You must make a visible difference between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth." God replied, "As you live, I shall begin with you." So Abraham went off, passed the night, and arose in the morning. When he arose he saw that the hair on his head and of his beard had turned white. He said, "Master of the Universe, if You have given me white hair as a sign of old age, I do not find it attractive." "On the contrary," God replied, "the hoary head is a crown of glory." (Prov. 16:31)

As I slip from youth into middle age, I find myself greatly sensitized to our culture's idolization of youth and idealization of youthful beauty. Some mornings I like the gray strands now at my temples. They're visually interesting and existentially mysterious. Other days I want to blot them out, regain the lush brown I've known and loved. As the midrash reminds us, this is not just a feminine issue: there comes a point where each of us, men and women alike, looks in the mirror and realizes (in the words of the late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz) "I am not who I once was."

Dr. Vivian Diller, author with Jill Muir-Sukenick of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change, writes: "The truth is, millions of us now in our 40s, 50s, and 60s are preoccupied with thinking about the physical realities of growing older. We anxiously stare in the mirror like insecure adolescents and are surprised and embarrassed that we care so much."

It is difficult not to. If the rabbis could imagine Abraham's dismay at the physical signs of aging, how much more so for us, men and women, living in a culture in which we are constantly bombarded with visual images of young, vigorous bodies. We might resist, struggle with disappointments or identity shifts, or wish our looks weren't changing. But the last word of the midrash is given to God, who sees the emotional toll that going gray has taken on Abraham and comforts him. His words are directed to his heart, a reminder that old age is a time of glory. We, like Abraham, are distracted by the changes in our appearance and tricked by our culture's emphasis on youth into forgetting that with age comes experience, that a head of white signifies a certain wisdom and important lessons learned. As Diller advises, "We need to embrace the multidimensional meaning of beauty that begins with Webster's Dictionary definition—"a quality that gives pleasure or exalts the mind"—and go deeper beneath and ultimately beyond."