“God has given you a face
And you make yourselves another?” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.149)
It is a remarkable fact that in western civilization old age is seen by most people as a curse. According to statistics more money and time is spent on concealing the signs of old age than on finding ways to prevent heart disease or cancer. One finds more people in beauty parlors than in hospitals. Old age is seen as a defeat. Many people consider being retired synonymous with being retarded. There is a strong sense of being useless and rejected, with a feeling of emptiness and boredom.
This stands in direct contrast to Judaism. How revealing is the fact that according to Jewish Tradition it was Avraham who specifically asked and begged God, not just to allow him long productive years, but also to show the physical signs of getting old in years.
In Bereshith (24:1) we read: “And Avraham was old, well advanced in years.” The Talmud (Baba Metzia 87a) points to the redundancy of this verse: it asks, if Avraham was old, why do we need to know that he was well advanced in years? What does “advanced in years” add to “And Avraham was old”?
To this the Talmud gives a most remarkable answer: “Until Avraham, people did not grow old", i.e. they did not show signs of becoming older. And (since Avraham and his son Isaac looked alike) people who saw Avraham said: this is Yitzchak and people who saw Yitzchak said: this is Avraham. Avraham then prayed to grow old, i.e. to show signs of ageing and this is the meaning “And Avraham was old.”
Avraham then was not only advanced in years, but he wanted to show his old age by way of his facial and bodily appearance. In this way there would also be a distinctive difference between him and his son. This was in contrast to the earlier generations in which people would advance in years, but without any physical indication, till they suddenly died at a ripe age. They continued to look young and resemble their children.
To fully appreciate the deeper meaning of this we need to remember another Talmudic teaching: in Bereshith (25:9) we are confronted with another redundant sentence: “And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Avraham and Avraham begat Yitzchak.” Here again the Talmud asks why it is necessary to tell us that Avraham begat Yitzchak when in the earlier part of the verse we are already told: “These are the generations of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham.”
To this the Talmud responds: “The cynics of the time were saying: Sara became pregnant by Abimelech. See how many years she lived with Avraham without being able to have child by him! (See Bereshith chapter 20 where Sara is taken into the palace of Abimelech, King of Gerar, with the intention of marrying her, but returned her to Avraham after Abimelech realized that Sara was in fact married to Avraham). What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He made Isaac’s facial expressions exactly resemble those of Avraham, so that everyone had to admit that Avraham begat Isaac. This is what is meant by the words: “And Avraham begat Yitzchak”, to wit that there was clear evidence for everybody to see that Avraham was the father of Isaac. (Baba Metzia 87a)
No doubt God decided to make Yitzchak resemble Avraham so that the cynics of that generation could not claim that Yitzchak was an illicit child of Sara. By doing so the integrity of Avraham and Sara was divinely protected.
But this came with a high price: the loss of individuality. If Yitzchak resembled his father to the extent that people could not differentiate between them, then a great injustice was done to the very meaning of their being. What is man if he is not different from all others? Once two people are identical, their personal authenticity is exchanged for false luster, for camouflage and deception. Every man is more than himself. He represents the unique. Parents are not to be their children and children should not be the replica of their parents. It was Hilary Putnam who once said: “Every child has the right to be a total surprise to her or his parents.” Human beings should be told that they are more than half of what they are by imitations. Once we deny the uniqueness of all human beings we breed resentment and violate the integrity of men. (To refrain from imitation is the best revenge, Marcus Aurelius once said.) Above all we must make sure that originality stays at the center of our lives. It is an expression of protest against imitation. About man it is stated that God created him in His image. It does not state that He made them in His image. In western civilization there is a belief that human beings are valuable because they are part of the human race, but it was Judaism which made the point that the human race is of great significance because it exists of human beings. But such can only be true when it exists out of an abundance of specific individuals, as a community of individuals, rather than a herd or a multitude of nondescripts.
The signs of old age are signs of experience and wisdom. While it is true that it is not by years but by disposition that wisdom is acquired, and that many never live a meaningful life, only accumulating unspent youth without ever making use of it and staying permanently immature even in old age, it is still true that wisdom comes with old age. (How true the observation of Mark Twain that our youth should start at the end of our lives!)
When Avraham asked God to make him appear old, he did not just ask for a “facedown”, he asked for his spiritual beauty to steal inward. As such he remained himself with added new dimensions.
For the authentic religious personality this is of crucial importance. Religion can only be experienced and lived when carried out in a state of originality. Any imitation of fellow worshippers is serving oneself and not God. Religion is an attempt to search for God, the ultimate Original.