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Abraham’s Second Life

In the Stone Edition Chumash, the brief note on Genesis 25:1-11, which summarizes Abraham’s life after the death of his wife, Sarah, and the marriage of their son, Isaac, to Rebecca, reveals more about human life than, I believe, the editors intended. They tell us, “as is customary in the Torah, when a person’s role in the development of the narrative is completed, his life is summed up, even though he may have lived for many years. Once Abraham, at the age of 140, had arranged for the marriage of Isaac, the destiny of the Jewish people moved on to the next generation, even though Abraham lives to the age of 175.”

This insight explains the narrative strategy of Sefer Bereyshit, the Book of Genesis, but it also raises a disturbing question. If Abraham, the discoverer of the One God and the founder of the Jewish people, can so easily be dismissed, what does it say about the rest of us as we age? Does life really start, as in the old joke, when the children move out and the dog dies, or does it end? What will make our lives meaningful, when we, hopefully, have watched our children embark on their life journey, entered retirement, experienced the losses and rewards of human experience and, like Abraham of old, look forward to spending another quarter century or more on this side of eternity? Are we to be written out of our children’s story and our family’s history? Will we make a second life for ourselves or will we quietly fade from the world of those we hold so dear?

This is the challenge that faces each generation as the years pass on. Have the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” those who grew up in the Depression, matured in the World War II and Korea and led us through the struggles of the rest of the 20th century, found meaning and purpose in their later years? Will the “Baby Boomers,” now entering retirement, be any more successful? What models of senior life will these generations leave to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Can we find hope and guidance in Abraham’s experience or do we see it as a sad and frightening warning?

It is not that Abraham’s second life was terrible. The little bit of information we find in the Torah suggests that Abraham achieved a sense of contentment or serenity in his old age (Genesis 25:8). He found a new wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1), and raised a family of six sons (25:2). He apparently remained prosperous enough to provide them all with enough resources to start their own lives east of the Land of Israel, in his old homeland (25:6). He remained in contact with his first two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and upon his death, the two of them ensured that he was properly buried in the cave of Machpelah, alongside of Sarah (25:9-10). Rabbinic legends do little to fill out the rest of Abraham’s story although they do tie up a few loose threads. In a number of midrashim, the ancient rabbis’s narrative expansions of scripture, there is the sweet note that Keturah was really Hagar (Genesis Rabba 61:4). Rebecca, the sages inform us, met Isaac on his way home from Beer-lahai-roi, where he had gone to escort Hagar back to Abraham after Sarah’s death (Genesis Rabba 60:14; Rashi on Genesis 24:62). At least, according to one midrash, Abraham found a retirement job. Projecting their values back to Abraham’s time, the sages claimed that Abraham, like any great teacher of Torah, established his own academy. There he had the special pleasure of having his grandson, Jacob, as one of his star pupils (Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) VaYishlach 9). At best, Abraham often appears as a “has-been.” Even in the rabbinic retelling of his story, Abraham, in his old age, has become an incidental character in the ongoing life of his family. He no longer stands at the center of the stage.

As Jews, this vision of aging presents us with a particularly difficult challenge. So much of our religious and spiritual life is spent engaged in the life of our community and our world. Our basic value words often imply action and activity. We perform mitzvot. We give tzedakah. We gather for prayer. We strive for tikkun olam. We build families, communities and prepare for yemot ha-mashiach, “the coming of the messianic age.” What are we to do, when we no longer have to do, or sadly, no longer can do?

Exploring further, however, we realize that in his retirement Abraham points to another Jewish path we can follow as we enter our second life. This path may lack the drama and thrills of the road we left, but as we walk it, we discover new challenges and new rewards. As we walk down this path, we have the time to review our lives, to tie up the loose ends, and to serve as an anchor for those who are still rushing down the highway. If the old road was the “Path of Action,” this new path is the “Path of Blessings.”

Genesis 24:1 introduces the story of Isaac’s marriage, the final great event of Abraham’s life, with the notice, “Now Abraham was old, well on in years and the Eternal had blessed Abraham with everything.” In a midrash found in Genesis Rabba 59:7, the talmudic sage Rabbi Levi explores the spiritual significance of this verse. He suggests that the phrase “being blessed with everything” could in Abraham’s case be understood in three or four different, but complimentary, ways. Put together, these interpretations present us with a new way of appreciating our second lives.

Rabbi Levi’s first understanding is that God made Abraham master of his yetzer hara, his emotional life. In his old age, Abraham had achieved enough maturity not to be ruled by his passions. By gaining control over his yetzer, Abraham received the blessing of spiritual freedom and inner strength.

Rabbi Levi’s second insight is that Abraham lived long enough to see that his rebellious son Ishmael had reformed. God blessed Abraham by allowing him to see his children grow into full human beings. Abraham received the special satisfaction reserved only for the elderly of seeing one’s children and grandchildren living full and rewarding lives, the sense of pleasure, which we, in Yiddish, call “nachas.”

The third blessing is a very practical one. Rabbi Levi states that Abraham had what he needed to survive, literally, “his storehouse was never diminished in any way.” Material blessings are never guaranteed, but a life well lived, combined with the blessings of spiritual freedom and nachas, go a long way in securing this third of Abraham’s blessings.

Finally, Rabbi Levi adds one more blessing, one he learned from his teacher, Rabbi Hama ben Hanina. This blessing is the most wonderful. Rabbi Hama ben Hanina said that being blessed “with everything” means that God did not test Abraham again. Abraham’s blessing was that he no longer had to stand up front and center on the stage of life. He had passed all life’s challenges and now could enjoy the fruits of victory.

Following the interpretive trajectories implicit in the Torah and indicated by our ancient rabbis, we find that Abraham found in his second life another spiritual path. It was not the “path of action,” filled with trials and challenges, which make for a gripping story. It was another path — the quieter, and, perhaps, more rewarding “path of blessings.” This gentle path may not make a good subject for an action thriller, but has its own rewards. By telling us so little about Abraham’s peaceful second life, our ancestors did not write Abraham out of the story but gave him and us the opportunity to explore the special blessings we can find as we live our second lives.

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