Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 14 November 2020 / 27 Heshvan 5781

Living Through the Days

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Avraham ages — he is zaken, and the Torah records he had come through the days, and that G-d blessed him in everything. From this summary of Avraham’s life in his old age, we learn a great deal about how to live.

A zaken is one who has acquired wisdom through his vast experience. This is contrasted with the word for youth — na’ar — which, in the verb form,means to shake off. A youth still shakes off impressions and does not absorb them permanently. He does not learn from life, but seeks to shape his world out for himself. While this allows for the idealism of openness to new experiences, it comes with the serious handicap of not absorbing the lessons and consequences of his and others’ prior experiences.

The Torah’s word for elderly — zaken — is phonetically related to the root sachan/sakan, whose various senses denote the basic concept of being sensitive to absorb external impressions. A sochein is an attendant, and one who cares for an ill person and looks out for harmful influences that might affect his charge. In doing so, the attendant absorbs the influences himself as he protects the other.

Sakanah, danger, also denotes the perception and absorption of external stimuli, and leads to a change in behavior as a result.

Indeed, our Sages relate that zaken is an acronym for “Zeh KaNah”— he who has acquired wisdom (Kiddushin 32b), or, alternatively, he who has acquired both this world and the world to come (Ber. Rabbah 59:6). To Jewish wisdom, a zaken is one who, in his life on earth, has conquered both worlds, this one for the next, by absorbing the impact of his life experience and impressing the stamp of G‑dliness on his earthly life.

Thus, the description of Avraham as coming “through his days” is understood by our Sages to mean that he had lived his days doubly. This means that, although he lived out his days as earthly days, he really lived them as spiritual days. He lived “through” them, as they were a passageway leading him directly to the life of the world to come. (Ber. Rabbah 59:6). He was not overcome by his days, but, rather, each one was a milestone for him, an opportunity for him to absorb his experiences — on his way to eternity.

  • Sources: Commentary, Ber. 24:1

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