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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Chayei Sara 5771 - Most Beautiful
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv shlit”a relates the parable about the young Rabbi of a small town who was not a very proficient speaker. He had terrible stage fright and prepared extensively for every lecture he delivered. In fact he would begin preparing his Shabos Shuva and Shabbos Hagadol lectures four months in advance.

The Rabbi was most fearful of having to deliver a eulogy. If a congregant died suddenly he would not have sufficient time to prepare and he feared sounding foolish at the funeral. To assuage his nerves the Rabbi clandestinely wrote eulogies for every member of his congregation. He then filed them away in the back of his drawer.

One day a fire broke out in the town and spread precariously close to the Rabbi’s house. The Rabbi scurried to gather his belongings in a state of chaotic panic. The townspeople noticed papers lying in the street outside the Rabbi’s home that contained eulogies of the members of the congregation. They were dismayed to think that the Rabbi was preparing for their deaths. That night the heads of the community convened and decided to fire the Rabbi.

Rabbi Elyashiv noted that the community members were fools. The wisest of men declared, “Man goes to his eternal home, while the eulogizers go about the streets, before the silver cord snaps, and the golden bowl is shattered…[1]” Before a person even leaves this world eulogizers abound and begin to write his eulogy. In fact, throughout our lives we are writing the content of our own eulogies. Instead of firing the Rabbi, the townspeople should have realized that the Rabbi’s actions was actually a vital lesson for them.

Indeed throughout our lives we must always ask ourselves: “Are we preparing a good eulogy for ourselves?”

“Avrohom was old, coming with his days.” (24:1)

“Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon said: Avrohom requested aging (i.e. that he look elderly). He said before Him (G-d), “Master of the world, a man and his son enter a place, and they don’t know who to honor. If You will crown (the elderly) with aging then one will know who to honor. The Holy One, blessed is He, replied, ‘By your life! You have requested something good and from you it will begin. From the beginning of the book (Bereishis) until now it does not say the word ‘old’, but when Avrohom stood (i.e. reached that age) G-d granted him aging. That is what the verse means “Avrohom was old, coming with his days[2].”

Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l explains that Avrohom’s request for the aging process to take effect was not because he desired respect. The Medrash[3] quotes the verse “You are most beautiful of all people, charm has been poured into your lips” in reference to Avrohom Avinu. In other words, Avrohom did not request to appear old as a matter of practicality, but Avrohom understood that the appearance of old age was something beautiful and enviable, a veritable crown of beauty.

In our generation this idea is completely alien. Our society idolizes youthful vigor and external beauty. People pay hundreds and thousands of dollars to try to escape the natural process of senescence so that they can continue to appear youthful, despite advanced age. We cannot imagine someone telling an elderly person, “Look how beautiful you are; you look so old.” But that was exactly what Avrohom requested.

Rabbi Pinkus notes that when he was a child and heard people refer to the “Alter of Solobodka” or the “Alter of Kelm”[4] he wondered what they did wrong to have been subject to such a degrading title. It was not until he matured that he was able to appreciate the true meanings of that distinguished designation.

Rabbi Pinkus explains that there are three modes of time in one’s life: The past, the present, and the future. When the average person contemplates his past he sadly thinks that he has not accomplished much and has wasted much of his time on vanity and nonsense. Still he consoles himself by convincing himself that the future will be better. He will yet become rich, attain greatness, become a scholar, fulfill his dreams, and develop into the person he aspires to be. Thus the person who is already past his prime can become dejected and disconsolate, for he has not yet accomplished his goals and dreams, but now he lacks the years and vitality to accomplish it in the future. It is that attitude and thought-process which casts old age in such a morbid light.

Truly great people however view their lives in the opposite manner. The future is yet unknown and no one can know what tomorrow will bring. However, they can celebrate their past accomplishments and achievements throughout their decades of toil and effort.

When the Torah records the years of Avrohom’s life it states (27:7), “And these are the years of the life of Avrohom that he lived, one hundred years, seventy years, and five years.” Avrohom did not merely live one hundred and seventy five physical years. He lived every day of his life to its fullest, accomplishing as much as he was able to, because he viewed each day as an opportunity and a gift. They were all years in which he truly lived!

Rabbi Pinkus adds that truthfully there is another component of personal greatness. Even if one has accomplished a great deal in the past, it is over and done. The greatness of a person is ultimately measured by how he handles the present. [In that sense it is aptly worded for every moment is indeed a present.] The individual who views every blessing, prayer, conversation, interaction, and action as an opportunity will take advantage of his every day.

When one seeks a doctor one does not merely look for a doctor who is qualified and well-trained. One also looks for a doctor who has much experience. Such a doctor examines his patients and states his prognosis based on all of his year’s worth of knowledge and experience.

A person who views life as an elongated growth process and “takes his days with him” builds his present based on his past. Each day is built upon the days, months, and years before it. Thus, for example, when he prays he is not reciting an isolated prayer but a prayer based on all of his years of effort and struggle in developing his ability to pray ands feel connected with G-d.

When he prays, when he studies Torah, and when he performs mitzvos, the righteous individual invests his entire being into what he is doing. All of his years of effort and achievement are incorporated into the present actions. Therein lies the beauty of old age. The action of someone with forty years of effort and accomplishment cannot compare with the action of someone with eighty years of effort and accomplishment. The same is true with every stage of life.

Simply by living life one invariably develops wisdom and maturity. The whiteness of the hair, the wrinkles, and the enfeebled body, are symbols that the person has spent years in the perennial struggle for growth and accomplishment. The elderly person who utilizes all of his life’s experience throughout his day is truly worthy of respect and admiration.

He spends his days writing a most beautiful eulogy, a eulogy based on a lifetime of accomplishment.

“The years of life that he lived”

“You are most beautiful of all people”

Perhaps the greatest example of the etherealness and beauty of growing older is the blissful joy of grandparenthood. To grandparents there is no one more precious and perfect than their grandchildren. And to grandchildren there is no one more wonderful and dear as their grandparents.

Grandparents personify the continuity of the traditions that we tenaciously cling to and are so integral in our lives. And grandparents share a special bond with their grandchildren. There is something transcendent about that relationship that cannot be explained with words.

This past Monday morning, 17 Cheshvan 5771 (October 26, 2010) was the yahrtzeit of my Savta, Mrs. Minnie Staum a’h (as well as the yahrtzeit of her oldest brother, Mr. Jack Gold a’h, who passed away on the same day quite a number of years before).

At 8:41 A.M. on Monday morning Hashem blessed us with the birth of our daughter. The miracle and blessing of childbirth is inexpressible and incredible. That our daughter was born on the day of her great-grandmother’s yahrtzeit made it all the more special. [Our first daughter Aviva is named for my Savta.]

May Savta’s soul be elevated, and may our precious daughter take her place among the righteous women of Israel and follow in the footsteps of all of her illustrious ancestors. May we only see nachas from her and all of our children and may Klal Yisroel always share simchos and happy occasions.

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[1] Koheles 12:5

[2] Bereishis Rabbah 65:9

[3] Ibid 59:5

[4] “Alter” literally means “The elder”. The saintly leaders of those acknowledged Torah institutions were so called as a title of reverence and respect. But to an American boy it had a very different connotation.

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