The Lives of Young Israel
BY RABBI DAVID WARSHAW
The lifetime of Sarah consisted of 100 years, 20 years and seven years” (Bereishit 23:1). Rashi famously explains that the word “years” is repeated after each number to teach us that when Sarah was 100 years old, she had the purity of a 20-year-old, without liability for sin. And when she was 20, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty.
Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l, presents a magnificent insight into Rashi’s teaching. He explains that the words שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה – “the span of Sarah’s life” refer to the many lives of Sarah; that Sarah was, simultaneously, a 100-year-old adult, a 20-year-old woman and a seven-year-old child. Although biologically this may be impossible, it is possible to see youth and old age or even childhood and youth as simultaneous experiences in the realm of one’s character and behavioral development. The elderly often display restlessness and intensity and the young sometimes exhibit cautious wisdom and serious judgment. Sarah was concurrently 7, 20 and 100 years old, both very old and very young, all at once. At 20, she was mature, energetic and bold. Yet the adult did not destroy the child. Through her life she retained that childlike enthusiasm, her youthful boldness and courageousness.
The Rav explains that this ability to experience childhood, youth and old age simultaneously is a characteristic of Knesset Yisrael. There are three mitzvot that play pivotal roles in our religious life: Torah study, prayer and faith. We often equate the zaken, the elderly Jew, with the chacham, the man of wisdom. Maturity is important for the study of Torah. As far as Torah study is concerned, the mature adult is the ideal person.
When we consider prayer, however, the situation is quite different. In contrast to Torah study, prayer demands self-negation, a mood of near helplessness, and putting aside one’s feelings of independence and personal greatness. Prayer requires complete trust in Hashem. It is the child within us that feels the embrace of love and protection which is the very root of prayer.
Emunah, faith, is also a mitzvah that only the child in a person can perform. Faith in Hashem requires a suspension of judgment, the surrender of our mind, to act even though we may not understand why we are acting in a certain way.
Torah study requires adulthood, while prayer and faith require childhood. And so we must be ready to assume the identity of an adult or a child. Chazal tell us that the coin issued by Avraham had the images of an older man and woman on one side and the images of a young boy and girl on the other side. Sarah and Avraham merged together. They were young and old at the same time.
In my capacity as President of the National Council of Young Israel, I see this reflected in the Young Israel Movement’s history: The youthful enthusiasm and excitement of the early decades as demonstrated by rapid growth in the number of branches and the popularity of its many programs and activities. As time went on, the movement grew somewhat older and settled into a more staid pattern, sometimes wiser but often complacent, particularly as the needs and interests of the individual branches were concerned.
We must learn from the example of Sarah and Avraham to master the ability to experience youth and adulthood concurrently. We must restore a feeling of excitement and interest in our attitudes toward one another, both nationally and locally. But we must also utilize our years of experience and understanding to guarantee continued growth and renewed success for future generations.
Rabbi David Warshaw is the president of the National Council of Young Israel. He has served as National Community Campaign Director of Jewish National Fund, Executive Director of American Friends of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva and Executive Director of Yeshivat Sha’alvim. He has also served as president of Young Israel of Oceanside NY.