Escaping the Past

The Torah tells us that Sarah was 127 years old when she died. Well, it doesn't exactly tell us that. It says, "And the lives of Sarah will be 100 years, and 20 years, and seven years." What a strange formulation! Our sages seize upon the seemingly unnecessary "ands" to expound a truth about Sarah. When she was 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year-old. When she was 20, she was as sinless as a seven-year-old. (Some versions have it that she was as sinless at 100 as she was at 20, and as beautiful at 20 as she was at seven.) We will come back to this.

The biblical commentator Or Hachaim picks up on the beginning of the phrase, "the lives of Sarah." He explains that Sarah had different phases of her life. Each phase was like a different lifetime. Her first hundred years were quite difficult! For example, until she was 90 years old, she had no child. This deprived her of joy and satisfaction. And even though she gave birth at 90, she knew no peace because of her concern about Ishmael. Abraham's other son was a bad influence on Isaac, and according to some commentaries, posed a mortal threat to him.

Only when Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away did she begin to feel fully alive. When she made this request of Abraham, Abraham was reluctant. God came to him in a dream and told him to listen to Sarah, for Isaac was to be his true progeny. The commentaries point out that God was telling Abraham that Sarah's prophecy was on a higher level than his.

I find that interesting, because 10 years earlier, she seems to have a crisis in faith. When the angel informs her that she will give birth, she laughs and says, "after I became worn shall I rediscover my youth, and with my elderly husband?" The angel rebukes her to Abraham saying, "Is there anything that God cannot do?" If Sarah was a superior prophet, why was it so difficult for her to believe that she could have a child?

I believe that the Or Hachaim might say that Sarah became the superior prophet when she was 100. Prophecy requires joy and hope. Until Sarah was 100, she didn't feel those things strongly enough. And, perhaps it was the awareness of what she needed to do to protect Isaac that gave her that joy and hope. By finally freeing herself from this burden and requiring Abraham remove the threat of Ishmael, she discovered the power of prophecy.

Perhaps there is a hint to the Or Hachaim's explanation in the aforementioned commentary about Sarah being, at 100, as beautiful as at 20, etc.. She lived until 127. This explanation only takes us up to her 100th year. Perhaps, the last 27 years of her life were actually a new life.

Human psychology contains powerful forces that defy logic. One of those forces is the power of consistency. We hate to change our patterns. Once we have committed to something, we have a deep need to justify that commitment by consistently sticking to it, even if the commitment is illogical and harmful. A friend of mine once related that his parents, who were not observant, felt that they could never change their lifestyle. They told him that, "Even though we see that a Torah life is a good life, we cannot bring ourselves to make that change. To do so would be to admit that our entire previous life was in error."

In other words, even though they knew a better path was available, they refused to take it in order to retain consistency. The person who stays in an abusive relationship does so because of consistency. Appearing to be inconsistent, wishy-washy, unstable, scares us more than our known and established patterns, no matter how harmful they may be.

The Torah forbids us to cause distress to the convert by reminding them of who they were. Even if we intend to praise them, to contrast whom they used to be with whom they have become, it is forbidden. Why? Sarah teaches us. That was a previous life, perhaps even a different person. The person I am talking to now is not them. How does someone feel when being blamed for the misdeeds of an entirely different individual? That's how the convert feels when being told about his past misdeeds, even if the intent is to praise them.

Ecclesiastes is the book where King Solomon explores every possible way to achieve happiness in this world. Riches, wine, women, song are all given their chance. The book concludes with the exhortation, "At the end, everything is heard. Fear the Lord, observe His commandments, because this is the totality of man." A teacher at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Zebulun Charlop, gave a beautiful comment on this verse. Even if a person has wasted their time on riches, wine, women and song, those events need not define him. If his ending is full of fear of the Lord and observance of the commandments, "everything is heard." That becomes their totality. Whatever they did up to that point was simply process, not essence. The womanizer of the past is now a different person.

Sarah's age, the way it is presented, teaches us a very powerful lesson for life. We are not to be stuck in destructive patterns. We have the ability to say that that life belongs to another, and now I am a changed person in a new life. Those previous years and misdeeds were simply part of the birthing process for who I am now. It took Sarah 100 years to give birth to herself, in a sense.

And this applies equally to others! Someone who we disliked many years ago, who mistreated us, is quite capable of becoming a new person. The Torah commands us to never bear a grudge, because a grudge is based on a falsehood. The falsehood is that people cannot change. They can. Just as we must be open to our own ability to change, and identify destructive consistency when it hits, we must be open to new relationships with those who have caused us tension in a previous life. It's not always easy, but it enriches us tremendously.