Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 October 2021 / 24 Cheshvan 5782

Authentic Innocence and Beauty

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The Torah leads us to the end of our noble Matriarch’s life, and has inscribed upon her monument the following words: Sarah’s life was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years: years of Sarah’s life.

Our Sages, noting the atypical way in which her lifespan is recorded, comment that Sarah’s life is divided into three distinct periods. She did not live for 127 years, but rather for one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. Our Sages regard these words as the perfect character sketch of the most worthy life. They draw the following parallel between these distinct phases of childhood, young adulthood and old age: at one hundred she was as innocent as when she was twenty, and at twenty as beautiful as when she was seven. Beauty at seven? Innocence at twenty? Should it not be the reverse?

But if we were to contemplate beauty… we would notice that there are many more beautiful children than young men and women. Hardly any child is born ugly — all newborns are beautiful. A child’s face is beautiful because passions and wrongdoing have not yet etched their lines on its face. The face of one who has not yet known rage or resent, avarice or arrogance, vanity or vulgarity, will reflect none of those ills in its countenance. Those destructive paintbrushes stroke the self-portrait of man only beyond his childhood years — his face becomes a reflection of his true face. And so, as Sarah’s life was one uninterrupted song of goodness and virtue, her true face retained the beauty of childhood. Had Sarah mounted her own picture of Dorian Grey in her tent, it never would have grown distorted. At young adulthood, the prime of unchecked passion, her face remained as it was at seven. Decades could have passed, and not a single wrinkle or blemish would have appeared on that portrait. For there were no blotches or misstrokes in her character. Beauty, in fact, is more than skin deep.

And if we were to contemplate innocence… our Sages teach here that the peak of innocence is not reached in infancy. Those who are genuinely sinless must have first developed clarity of mind to have chosen that path. A child’s innocence is mostly a product of his unsuspecting nature. He is still too simple-minded to sin. In our notion of outgrowing this innocence, as man grows in his worldly wisdom, he is bound to do evil. But consider how the view of our Sages ennobles man! Age twenty: mind and body are mature, and judgment is sharpened, but the heart is still wide and warm, eager to embrace things good and noble. Idealism is the child of this “innocence.” Sarah never outgrew this innocence — at one hundred her heart still swelled with the loving-kindness, hope, and energy it did at twenty.

These years together are called chayei Sarah. She lived in all of them. She took the crowning quality of each stage of life into the next stage. A phrase describing the final days of the noble and righteous is ba bayamim, literally “he comes through the days.” (Bereishet 24:1 - Avraham; Melachim I 1:1 - David) He does not sink in his days. He passes through them. He retains the spiritual and moral attainments of his past and takes them with him into the future. The threads of purity in childhood are not dropped or worn out — they continue their stitch into adulthood, where new colors and shades are added. And that spool of idealism is not replaced by those of economy, pride, and pragmatism. Instead, all of his days are stitched, through and through, with the color of its virtue.

  • Sources: Bereishet, 23:1; Collected Writings, Vol. 8, “Beauty and Long Life,” pp. 137-144

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