Although I’m not a die-hard Trekkie, my inner nerd cheered when I watched William Shatner reprise his iconic role as a space adventurer; boldly going where no 90-year-old man had gone before. As exciting as it was to watch Captain Kirk explore the galaxy again, it was his reaction to the entire experience that really caught my attention. As I watched him looking out of the windows of the rocket, I saw a 90-year-old man, but when I closed my eyes and listened, just listened to the words coming out of his mouth, it was not a 90-year-old man before me, but a boy, a child, full of joy and youthful wonder, dazzled by the sight in front of him. Almost speechless, he half whispered, “Oh wow.”
This week’s parsha opens with the passing of Sarah Imeinu; “Sarah’s life was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” The unusual, albeit poetic phraseology of this first pasuk gives rise to a bevy of midrashim that address this mysterious numerical configuration. In Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary, he states that the life of Sarah was divided into three discrete age groups: one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. These correspond to three stages of life – childhood, young adulthood, and old age. As Sarah passed through each stage of life, she brought the best of the previous stage along with her. She brought the beauty of childhood into young adulthood, and the innocence and optimism of young adulthood into her old age.
Why is Sarah’s beauty mentioned in her eulogy? Sarah Imeinu is one of our ultimate role models – certainly there was some other middah, some other nonphysical attribute that could have been mentioned? What reason could there possibly be for highlighting her looks?
There’s a well known phrase with various iterations that states, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” The implication here is that although genetics dictate the way you look as a young person, life choices play a huge role in what you look like in middle and older age. On a superficial level this is obvious. External factors such as neglecting sunscreen and eating an unhealthy diet unquestionably contribute to how we look as we age, but there are other, more complex, more intangible variables that play a role as well.
When I started practicing optometry 20 plus years ago, I rarely saw patients in their nineties, now it is a daily occurrence. Contrary to everything mainstream media would have me believe, I’ve found that my nonagenarian patients are way more interesting and, dare I say, way more beautiful than their 20-year-old counterparts. No one can unfurl a story better or make me laugh more than someone who has had the life experience to know that nothing bad lasts forever. We are conditioned to think that youth equals beauty. We are also conditioned to think that beauty is the composite sum of a math equation calculated by using some specific and arbitrary ratio of our physical parts. Not so.
How many times have you met someone who you initially categorized as average looking and then they smile, or laugh, or make you laugh, and suddenly what is plain is beautiful, and what is ordinary becomes extraordinary. Part of what makes someone beautiful is when their inner light, their chein, is so radiant that it illuminates their face. It is no coincidence that the word panim (face) and the word pnimiyus (inner character) share a common root. As we get older and our traits and personalities become more ingrained and entrenched within our persona, they etch themselves onto our faces, and so someone who is beautiful within will reflect that beauty outward as well. This connection between panim and pnimiyus explains why Sarah’s beauty was eulogized; it was not simply a description of how she looked but a description of her entire way of life.
A few years ago my mother went on vacation with a group of her friends, some of whom she has been close with since high school. After her trip, my mom showed me a picture that they had taken together. I still can’t exactly put my finger on it, but something about this photo was special. At first I thought it was the lighting or the background but after looking at it a couple of times I realized that they all wore a similar expression, some combination of joy, playfulness and camaraderie, a look so powerful that it practically leaped off the page and grabbed me. What also struck me was that even though it was clear that they were all in their seventies, they looked young. Like their mother Sarah Imeinu they had managed to bring the exuberance and excitement of childhood into their older years.
When Shatner stepped off the rocket after his 10-minute flight, it was evident from his face and demeanor that he was profoundly moved. “I hope I never recover from this,” said Shatner, “ I hope that I can maintain what I feel now, I don’t want to lose it.” Shatner’s fervent wish precisely articulates the meaning of “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” How many of us become cynical as we get older, living in the past and mourning our youth, our adventures, our sense of “wow” and wonder? How many of us still retain the optimism of young adulthood, where everything was fresh and untarnished, life sprawling out in front of us with infinite possibility? Sarah Imeinu had mastered this skill, capturing all of the magical qualities of her younger years and successfully integrating them into her old age. She lived a beautiful life and so she died as a beautiful woman; a true paradigm of the quintessential fusion of body and soul.