This week’s parsha begins with tragedy as the Torah tells us of the death of Sarah Imeinu. The pasuk tells us that she was 127 years old when she died, but the real lesson is learned from the how her age is written. “וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה” “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; the years of the life of Sarah.” (Bereishis 23:1). Why did the pasuk write out each set of years separately?
The classic explanation comes, as usual, from Rashi. He explains that each set of years is meant to make a point. First, when she was one hundred, she was like a twenty year old in terms of sin. Until the age of twenty, a person is not liable for punishment from Heaven for any sins they may do; even at the age of 100, Sarah had not sinned in any way to require punishment from Heaven. Secondly, when she was 20, she still had the pure beauty that is attributed to a little girl; in this example, a seven year old. The pasuk breaks down each level separately to accentuate these ideas.
Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch asks another question on this pasuk, how come the pasuk needed to write “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end? Isn’t it obvious that’s what we’re discussing? In fact, that’s the entire pasuk! To explain, he expands on this medrash.
The three ages of 100, 20, and 7 that are broken down in the pasuk, are representative of the three stages of a person’s life: youth, adulthood, and old age. Chazal teach us that the best way for a person to live their life is to act their age in each one of these stages. What is meant by this?
As a person lives and goes through these life stages, the lessons learned from each stage should be internalized and used to be successful in the next stage. So theoretically, the mistakes and lessons a person learns as a child should affect how he lives as an adult, and the happenings of an adult should teach and influence him how to live his life as an older person. What should end up happening is that the older person has the most life experience from which to draw wisdom and insight into events in the world, while in turn the adult has more wisdom and experience than the youth. When life follows this pattern, with a person accepting and internalizing past experiences and building upon them in the next stage of life, Chazal say this is a true life.
This brings us back to the medrash and the breakdown of Sarah’s life. To read the medrash simply sounds ridiculous. The lack of sin on the part of the 20 year old is due to what is called the “innocence”, read- naiveté, of the youth. You can’t hold an unknowledgeable person responsible for their actions! And there’s no pride in being compared to that kind of innocence. (But people actually think there is!) In reality, the true conqueror of sin is the one who has been faced with the challenges of life, the attraction to depravity, the desires for shallowness, slowly building up experience and knowledge throughout their adult life until they come out shining on the other side. The real comparison you want drawn is the 20 year old should be clean from sin like the 100 year old, the one who has faced those challenges and come out on top!
The same is true when it comes to beauty. As an innocent, ignorant child, it is easy to maintain the pure, clear beauty of youth. But the one who has faced peer-pressure, possibly derision, and the expectations of the outside world, yet still maintained that pure beauty, both inner and outer, upon reaching adulthood, that is someone to be admired. This is a stage that is meant for those in the prime of life when the thoughts of others are stronger on the consciousness and the physical body is in peak condition. And it is one that can be conquered by them. This person is to go through these challenges, come out shining on the other side and is to be compared to a young child who knows nothing of such things!? It’s insulting.
Sarah was someone who embodied this “true life”, taking the lessons of her youthful beauty to service her as an adult, and the lessons on avoiding sin into her later years. This is why the pasuk breaks down her age into these three stages, represented by the numbers 100, 20, and seven. So while these 127 were indeed “the years of the life of Sarah”, they were also “the life of Sarah”; they tell the story of her journey through the stages of life until she left this world, fully accomplished, having perfectly completed the sum of the purpose of her entire life.
May this understanding of our amazing ancestor be an inspiration to us all, and teach us how we should view each portion of our lives. Any challenges we face are only there to make us stronger, and our lives are only complete when we can use everything we have learned, our lives can only then be called “truly lived”, when we have reached the final stage.
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