Parshat Chayei Sarah and the Wisdom of Old Age
Earlier this week, The New York Times carried a fascinating article. It had nothing to do with the disputed presidential election results, so you will be forgiven for having missed it. Titled “Old Dogs, New Research and the Secrets of Aging,” the article addresses one of the most vexing problems of the modern era — the aging process.
We tend to forget that while our ancestors may have faced myriad health challenges, aging issues were never the highest priority, and research into aging and how to reverse it was primarily the field of cranks and quacks — the medical health research equivalent of alchemy.
One of history’s most famous longevity gurus was Luigi Cornaro, a 16th-century Venetian nobleman and patron of the arts, who promoted a demanding holistic lifestyle that prescribed a limited daily intake of food, although this had to be accompanied by a good helping of wine. Remarkably he lived into his late nineties, or possibly even to 102, and his quirky book The Sure and Certain Method of Attaining a Long and Healthful Life, was republished dozens of times, even long after his death in 1566.
But while modern medicine has seen the average life expectancy in developed countries shoot up from mid-60s to late-70s since 1950, with the expectation that it will be into the early-80s by 2050 (compare that with an average life expectancy of 40 in early-19th century England), many of the non-life threatening challenges associated with the process of aging have yet to be addressed.
In any event, according to the Times article, researchers have decided that we have a lot to learn from dogs, which is why they have begun to research exactly how dogs age, “in the hope that [this] will help us understand how humans age.”
There have been no remarkable breakthroughs yet, and it would appear that while the research has thrown up some wonderfully interesting and quantifiable data, we need not hold our breath for any groundbreaking news about how dog-aging insights will help us all live longer and healthier lives.
So far, all we know for sure is that “dogs are similar to us in important ways… [such as] what happens in their DNA as they get older.” All of this may eventually lead to “what scientists call a ‘model’ for human aging,” so that we can “learn more about how we age and perhaps how to age better.”
Incidentally, I was fascinated to read that as part of their research, one study compared an aging Labrador to the aging process of Hollywood actor Tom Hanks. The Labrador happened to be the dog they were studying, and they used Tom Hanks as a counterpoint because he is a celebrity in the public eye whose aging process from early life to the present we are all quite familiar with.
Or, as James Gorman, the article’s author, noted: “for most of us, of course, there is no pleasure in seeing a dog get older, but seeing even a beloved celebrity subject to the irresistible march of time is somehow reassuring.” Well, maybe.
You may be wondering where I’m going with all of this. Truthfully, I was quite struck by the serendipity of it all, as the article in the Times appeared in the very same week that we read about aging in the Torah, in the portion of Chayei Sarah (Gen. 24:1): וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל — “Abraham was old, well on in years; and God blessed Abraham with everything.”
According to the Talmud, the proximity of the first and second part of this verse is not a coincidence. Before Abraham, there was no concept of aging. This meant that as Isaac closely resembled his father, making them almost indistinguishable from each other, people often made the mistake of speaking to one instead of the other.
As a result of this confusion, Abraham prayed that God introduce an aging process for humans so that such mistakes would be avoided in the future. Consequently, God aged Abraham, and that’s why the verse concludes by saying he was blessed with “everything” — even aging.
Or at least that’s what the Talmud seems to be saying. But as many of the earliest Talmud commentaries note, there are quite a number of Torah verses which clearly indicate that aging existed long before Isaac was born. Some of these commentaries offer the rather limp suggestion that although people did become older before Abraham and Isaac, their age was not noticeable via any external features, which was why Abraham requested that age be apparent for all to see.
But Rabbi Yochanan Zweig offers a rather more satisfactory solution. According to Jewish tradition, after Adam had sinned in the Garden of Eden, eternal life was off the table, and the human body was doomed to decay and decline. To suggest that this state of decline was invisible, says Rabbi Zweig, defies rational explanation. Indeed, the Torah itself clearly describes a visible aging process, when Sarah, after hearing that she would give birth at the age of 90, responded by saying that this totally impossible — in her words: “After I am already wrinkled — will I have ever again have delicate skin?” (Gen. 18:12)
It would therefore appear that Abraham’s request was not related to physical aging, as that was a given. Rather, Abraham had noticed everyone spoke to him in the exact same way as they spoke to his son Isaac, with no particular respect shown for his advanced age, with its accompanying wisdom and experience. Abraham was very concerned that this non-recognition and non-acknowledgement of age was a dreadful mistake, as humanity must surely rely on those born before them, and learn from them, so that they can function more effectively in their own lives.
According to the Talmud (Kidd. 33a), even unlearned people must be respected if they reach old age, as their life experiences amount to facts learned and knowledge gained. It was this appreciation for age that Abraham asked God to inculcate into the psyche of mankind, to which God responded by blessing Abraham with “everything,” including this.
So, whether or not we can learn anything about the aging process by comparing ourselves to dogs, we must certainly recognize how lucky and privileged we are, with a vast wealth of human knowledge and experience available to us via the ever-increasing numbers of elderly people in our midst, probably the largest repository of such knowledge in all of human history. We are truly blessed.
Yet we would do well to remember the famous Oscar Wilde aphorism: “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”
The author is a rabbi and spiritual leader in Los Angeles.