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by Ranon Cortell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

As the dank and dreary halls of the nursing home scornfully crush the hot lifeblood of its inhabitants, Mr. Samuelson arranges his covers neatly beneath his chin and sighs apathetically.



As the dank and dreary halls of the nursing home scornfully crush the hot lifeblood of its inhabitants, Mr. Samuelson arranges his covers neatly beneath his chin and sighs apathetically. His mind dreamily drifts to earlier, seemingly happier days and ponders his presently droll existence. There must be something more to old age, he thinks. It can't be that all of life is concentrated in the wild rushings of youth and the steady plodding of middle-age, his mind daringly defies. There must be something more substantial to being old than reminiscing about the past and waiting to be brought to the grave. Rolling uneasily with his mind wandering in a dizzying spiral, Mr. Samuelson descends into an agitated slumber.

Surprisingly enough, the Midrash tells us that Abraham actually prayed that he should be blessed with the "ills" of old age. In this week's portion, the Torah states, "Abraham was old and had come into his years" (Genesis 24:1). Never before, even by the 930 year-old Adam, does the Torah use the term of growing old, because prior to Abraham a person was perfectly fit and able far past one hundred. Then, on a given and perilous day, he would sneeze and his soul would return to its maker. The Midrash states that Abraham pleaded before Hashem that as things stood, no one knew how to distinguish between the young and the old, and therefore they were unaware as to who was truly deserving of respect. Hashem found Abraham's request so admirable that he bestowed the great blessing of old age on Abraham immediately. Despite the opinions that one is required to show respect only to wise elders, Rambam (Maimonides), the great codifier of Jewish law, declares that one must show tremendous respect for any person of advanced years. The Sefer Hachinuch, an anonymous medieval work on the 613 mitzvot, explains that since an older person has seen so many of G-d's great gifts to this world and has thereby gained deeper insight into Hashem's mysterious workings, he is truly deserving of respect. If we fail to heed the advice of the "elders of Israel", we are like a man groping through dark caves in an attempt to discover the path to truth, too stubborn to use the candle in his pocket. Thanks to Abraham's prayer, we can now locate the individuals with whose insights and advice we can embark with confidence on the quest for an inkling of Hashem's ways and truly better ourselves spiritually.

One of the advantages of wrinkles and gray hair, says the S'fas Emes, a great leader of 19th century Polish Jewry, is that they cause us to look back on our lives, reminding us of Hashem's enormous kindness to us in the past and of our unfortunate misconducts. Through these recollections, a person is inspired to appreciate his belongings and to praise Hashem. He is also roused to repent before his death, thereby making him deserving of Heavenly mercy. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leading 20th century Jewish thinker in England and Israel, writes that Abraham's begging for old age was representative of his unending desire to bestow loving kindness on the world. When one praises someone undeserving of praise, it is purely for selfish reasons of flattery and self-advancement. However, explains Rabbi Dessler, when one praises someone who is truly deserving, it is done purely in the recipient's honor. By blessing the world with old age, Abraham was ensuring that elderly people would receive the honor that they deserve from people wanting to give them respect, thus providing society with the ultimate kindness.

The Maharal of Prague, a foremost Jewish thinker and philosopher of the 16th century, tells us that old age is simply an outward sign of the abandonment of the trivial physical world and an increased awareness of the intellectual and spiritual realm. As the body develops and focuses on its mental capacities, the physical aspects slowly deteriorate. For this reason, before Abraham's time, when awareness of Hashem was sufficiently absent, people never looked old because physicality was the epicenter of their lives. It is only with the arrival of Abraham who delved into Hashem's wondrous ways, the ultimate intellect ual and spiritual endeavor, that the phenomenon of old age appeared and has continued to this very day.

In conclusion, the Kli Yakar, a 17th century Polish commentator on the Torah, explains the verse that Abraham "had come into his years". He states that most people view old age as an exiting from better times and a precursor to death. However Abraham, thanks to his experiences of life and his appreciation of Hashem's special providence, realized that now was the time to loosen the fetters of physicality and ponder the nature of the world and the endless depths of Hashem's ways. At last, he had "come" into this invaluable cycle of life, and with great joy could praise Hashem's kindness, repair his errors, reap the rewards of his past achievements, and relegate himself to deep introspection. What a blessing!


Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Great er Washington while attending the University of Maryland.

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