Youthful Exuberance and the Wisdom of Experience

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Sarah’s biblical epitaph enumerates the years of her life in an unusual fashion, with the word “years” repeated three times: “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” (Genesis 23:1). Rashi quotes a midrashic interpretation comparing a hundred-year old with a twenty-year old and a twenty-year old with a seven-year old, explaining that Sarah exhibited characteristics of all these ages. This aspect of Sarah’s personality, simultaneously embodying qualities typical of both the young and the elderly, emerges from one of the many fascinating Aggadic passages in the Talmud.

What appeared on the coin of Avraham Avinu? An elderly man and woman on one side, and a young boy and girl on the other. (Bava Kama 97b)

It seems obvious that the Talmud refers not to an actual coin but to some symbolic image of Avraham’s accomplishments. Avraham did not have a kingdom with its own currency, but he did initiate a spiritual revolution of awesome proportions. If so, what is the symbolic meaning of age and youth? According to Rashi, the coin symbolizes Avraham and Sarah, the older couple, passing on their spiritual message to the next generation, Yitzchak and Rivka. In contrast, Maharsha understands both sides of the coin as referring to Avraham and Sarah, because even in their old age they were granted the youthful ability to have a child.

R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, in his LiFrakim (p. 375), agrees that both sides of the coin depict Avraham and Sarah. The two of them were able to combine the best of youth with the best of experience. The young are filled with energy, enthusiasm, and a revolutionary spirit. Indeed, the first Jewish couple energetically changed the world’s concept of religion. On the other hand, older people tend to be more thoughtful, settled, and steady. Avraham and Sarah excelled in this area as well. They were able to combine the burning idealism of youth with the wisdom and consistency of age.

R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik writes that several notable Rabbonim – his father, his grandfather, and R. Hayyim Heller – exhibited this trait. In his eulogy for R. Heller, R. Soloveitchik writes of the religious scholar:

On the one hand, he is knowledgeable – sated, strong of intellect, rich in experience, sober-sighted, crowned with age, great of spirit. On the other hand, he remains the young and playful child; naive curiosity, natural enthusiasm, eagerness and spiritual restlessness, have not abandoned him. (Shiurei HaRav, p. 63)

The preceding analysis may affect our reading of a fascinating midrash:

R. Hiyya taught that only in his elder years did the Holy Spirit reside in Shlomo, enabling him to write the three works of Mishlei, Kohelet, and Shir haShirim. R. Yonatan maintained that he wrote Shir haShirim first and then Mishlei and then Kohelet. He brought a proof from the way of the world: the young sing, middle-aged people tell parables, and the elderly see the vanity of the world. (Shir haShirim Rabba 1:10)

The correct relationship between optimism and pessimism emerges from this discussion. R. Yonatan identifies the time of composition of each of Shlomo’s works based on the stages of life. This seems eminently reasonable: youthful ardor dominates in the mornings of our lifetime, and experienced cynicism comes to dominate as evening falls. Why does R. Hiyya argue with an approach that seems true to much of human experience and instead claim that all three works were penned at the same time in Shlomo’s life?

Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, former Chief Rabbi of Antwerp and Tel Aviv (Derashot El Ami 2:15) suggests that all of life should include elements of both the optimism of Shir haShirim and the pessimism of Kohelet. In fact, it is only Kohelet’s ability to balance the youthful ardor of song with an authentic understanding of the difficulty of human existence that enables the song to continue through the ripeness of advancing years. Cheaply acquired optimism is quickly shattered on the rocks of human suffering; an equally easy despairing cynicism also misses the mark, for it indicates blindness to the many wonderful aspects of human existence. It is only a more realistic optimism that sees effort and difficulty as unavoidable but still finds cause for hope that we will survive the vicissitudes of human life.

It is precisely this combination of youthful optimism and experienced wisdom that informed the lives of Avraham and Sarah and allowed them to succeed in their revolutionary endeavors.

Adapted from Fresh Fruit & Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggadah by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau. More information on the book can be found here:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.