The Old-Young Nation
Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum hy”d
“And Avraham was old, advanced in years” (Bereishit 24:1). Old age overtakes a person for four reasons. Yehoshua, for example, grew old because of the many battles he fought, while Eli the Kohen grew old because of the evil reports he heard about his sons – “he heard all that his sons did to the people of Israel” (Shmuel I, 2:22). David grew old because of his fear of the sword, while Shlomo grew old because of the gentile wives he brought into his home (Tanchuma, Chayei Sarah).
But why did Avraham grow old? He did not fight many wars, nor did he hear evil reports about his children, for “Yishmael repented during his lifetime” (Bereishit Rabbah 59) and his grandson Esav did not rebel in his lifetime (ibid., 63). He did not live in fear of the sword and women did not turn his heart away from Hashem. So why did he grow old?
According to the view that says: “And Hashem blessed Avraham with everything (בָּכֹּל),” this means that “Avraham had a daughter whose name was ba-kol (בָּכֹּל)” (Bava Batra 16b), then it is possible that Avraham grew old from the challenges of raising a daughter… But according to those who interpret the verse differently, why did he grow old?
The truth is that Avraham prayed that old age should come to the world, so that people would be able to distinguish fathers from sons and the old from the young. “Until Avraham there was no old age in the world… Avraham came and prayed for old age” (Bava Metzia 86a).
Am Yisrael is old, advanced in years. We are certainly advanced in years, being over 3,200 years old! Compared to the nations among whom we dwell, we are extraordinarily old. Yet we are also an eternal nation; our days are like those of the heavens and the earth. Compared to eternity we are like young children! Why, then, has old age sprung upon us? Why do we exhibit the surest sign of age: “The old one is like a monkey” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:2), copying the actions of others, as if we have lost our own identity?
It is easy to explain our old age, for we have suffered from all four causes of aging, alongside many others that have dried the marrow of our bones and dimmed our vision. For two thousand years, the swords of destructive angels have been waved before our eyes. We have fought many painful wars that threatened our very survival against thousands of kings, ministers and princes, tens of thousands of their servants and innumerable servants of servants.
Our children have distanced themselves from their nation and from holiness; their whole desire is to be like the sons of Eli, to grab a good, fat slice of meat with their forks. Our wives are foreigners to their people and their culture, bringing the idols and culture of other nations into our homes. We have been “blessed” with “everything,” “בָּכֹּל,” with daughters who possess all the virtues and talents, who know seventy languages and how to sing, play music and dance (particularly at non-Jewish weddings!). “How beautiful are your steps in sandals, O prince’s daughter!” (Shir HaShirim 7:2), daughter of Avraham Avinu! There is only one thing these perfect daughters do not know: all that belongs to their nation! The language of their people embarrasses them, its wisdom is scornful in their eyes, and when they are reminded that they are Jewish women, it arouses within them disgust.
Even one of these things is enough to bring old age upon a nation, or even to bring a people to its grave, and it is only more likely when all these things and more descend upon a nation from every side. And so we should not wonder at our nation’s old age, but rather we should wonder that we are still alive!
Perhaps, however, there is a silver lining to our old age. Perhaps, like Avraham, we need old age! Until the Hebrew nation arose, there were no old nations in the world. A nation would live for a few hundred or a thousand years, and then disappear from the world. Go and look at the histories of the nations of the world and see how long they have existed. How many years have passed since they were formed as nations with their own cultures and national life? Are they not like children compared to the Hebrew nation? Am Yisrael brought old age, the agedness of nations, to the world. If we show some signs of age today, so be it! On the contrary, let everyone recognize our nation’s extraordinary longevity; let them appreciate the nation that left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai, the nation that conquered its land and produced prophets and poets; prophets and poets who have illuminated the entire world!
Ultimately, these signs of old age are only one side of the “coin of Avraham Avinu” (Bava Kamma 97b), the revealed side of the coin of the Hebrew nation in our time. The other side of the coin, though it has been hidden for a long time, is our freshness of youth, the bubbling currents of life that flow within us and our great ambition for a full and complete national life! And now we are drawing close to the day when this side of the coin will be revealed before the eyes of the world. The movement for the revival of the Hebrew nation is bringing a revolution!
When the Hebrew nation returns to its youth, when its young sons and daughters return to it, Hashem will bless us “בָּכֹּל,” with “everything,” with complete wholeness. No longer will our evil inclinations rule over us from within, with its war of wills and souls torn asunder. And neither will “the angel of death” and “worms and maggots” (Bava Batra 17a) attack us from without. Then the younger generation will know to honor their “elderly” traditions and add their own links to the golden chain of our nation’s history. And one nation will arise, the Hebrew nation, the “daughter whose name was ba-kol (בָּכֹּל)” (Bava Batra 16b).
And the daughter of Avraham Avinu will hear the voice that calls out to her: “Listen, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear; forget your people” – forget the new people that you acquired and “your father’s house,” the foreign stepfather that you took for yourself (Tehillim 45:11). “Go forth from your land,” from the land of your exile that you made into your own, from your “homeland” to which your navel is tied, and “from your father’s house” which is bound up with the impurities of the lands of foreign nations. “Go unto the land that I will show you,” to your land, “so the king shall desire your beauty” (Tehillim 45:12), to “make you beautiful in the world” (Bereishit Rabbah 39).
The Hebrew nation will return to its land, to the land of its fathers, and build there its home, a center of culture to bring beauty to the world. And “instead of your fathers shall be your sons, whom you will make princes in all the land… therefore shall the nations praise you, forever and ever” (Tehillim 45:17–18).
Translation by Rabbi Elie Mischel, from Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum, HaYahadut HaLeumit, 63–66 (1920, Warsaw).