© Rabbi David Lapin, 2014
What the Midrash Means Series - 1:6
Something strange has been happening to me. It’s been going on for a few years but I only identified it now: More and more people seem to be ready to accept the things I say with a quality of acquiescence that is new to me.
I prepare heavily before I present a workshop to a client, a speech to an audience, a shiur to students, or even suggest a potentially unpopular idea to a grandchild. I prepare to make sure that the other will understand my thoughts, accept them and integrate them. I think of intellectual proofs and collect supporting data and examples that will carry my argument forward. I prepare the sequence of my ideas to make them easier to follow. I anticipate every question and objection and prepare my responses. Nervously I approach the podium or the conversation, and I tentatively begin.
My preparation and nervousness are because in the past I had to fight to get a new idea accepted, battle with intellects, argue with knowledge and support with facts. But now it is different. As I begin to speak, an atmosphere of respect, curiosity and a desire to learn permeates the room. It seems as if the grey hairs on my head add a level of authority to my words that were not previously present. Provided I talk from my heart, authentically and caringly, my words are accepted with an almost gracious awe. There is no need for the proofs, illustrations and data. I can let my ideas flow freely as I abandon my prepared script. With passion I project myself into the minds and the hearts of my listeners. They don’t regard me as an intellectual adversary needing to be disproved; they seem to regard me with honor as a specialist from whom to learn. What has caused this transformation? This new-found credibility is a gift from Hashem inspired by Avraham.
א"ר יהודה בר סימון אברהם תבע זקנה אמר לפניו רבון העולמים אדם ובנו נכנסין למקום ואין אדם יודע למי מכבד מתוך שאתה מעטרו בזקנה אדם יודע למי מכבד א"ל הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל… יצחק תבע יסורין אמר לפניו רבון כל העולמים אדם מת בלא יסורים מדת הדין מתוחה כנגדו מתוך שאתה מביא עליו יסורים אין מדת הדין מתוחה כנגדו אמר לו הקב"ה חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך אני מתחיל… יעקב תבע את החולי אמר לפניו רבון העולמים אדם מת בלא חולי ואינו מיישב בין בניו מתוך שהוא חולה שנים או שלשה ימים הוא מיישב בין בניו אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך דבר טוב תבעת וממך הוא מתחיל
Bereishit Rabbah 65:9
Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon taught that Avraham demanded the aging process. He said: “Hashem, when a man and his son enter a place, no one knows which of them deserves to be honored. When you crown the father with old age, one knows who to honor.” Hashem answered: “What you ask is truly good. I will begin with you.” Yitzchak demanded hardship. He said: “Hashem, if one dies without prior hardship, he will be held accountable for everything he did wrong in his life. By giving him hardship with which to contend, you enable him to improve himself and thereby avoid the full force of justice for his misdeeds. Hashem answered: “What you ask is truly good. I will begin with you.” Yaacov demanded terminal illness. He said: “Hashem, if a man dies without previously having been ill, he has no opportunity to settle matters with his sons and family. If he is ill for a few days before he dies he settles outstanding matters with his family.” Hashem answered: “What you ask is truly good. I will begin with you.”
A Closer Reading
Our forefathers demanded the three things most people fear most: Old age, hardship and terminal illness. Prior to their demands, people did not show their age, experience unusual hardship or suffer from terminal disease. The forefathers saw spiritual advantage in having to deal with these three dreaded circumstances and believed humankind would be better if people suffered from them.
Thank you, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. Very thoughtful of you. But at least I now know why people are more ready to listen to me and treat me with greater honor than before. It is because of the way I look. Perhaps something about my bearing. It is the aging process: A gift from G-d, the crown of age, my new authority is nothing of my own accomplishment. It is a gift.
The Midrash however raises a different question for me: If Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov were correct and what they asked for was so good, then why did Hashem not build aging, hardship and terminal illness into the Creation from the get-go? Why did He wait for mankind to ask for these three tough gifts before He gave them to us?
We cannot escape our circumstances, particularly the natural aging process and the inevitable hardships and sometimes illness that many of us have or will encounter. Our choice is merely whether, when these hard times strike, we react as victims of a cruel force of nature, or as owners of challenging situations that given us to make us greater. If Hashem would have built aging, hardship and terminal illness into the Creation from the beginning, we would have responded to these events as victims. But we are not victims of nature; our ancestors deliberately asked that their offspring be subject to these hardships. As such we own them, we can accept them and use them to our spiritual advantage.
Accepting that which cannot be changed (especially something we asked for) and turning it to advantage, is the most important key to happiness and success. Accepting who we are at every stage of our evolving lives and using it to be the best we can be at that time, is foundational to our authenticity. Inner happiness and authenticity project the power of our beings outwards and inspire the people we touch. It is not for nothing that Pirkei Avot, based on a verse in Tehillim, refers to a person’s eighties as their era of power, Gevurah. Crowned with aging and accepting that crown with gratitude, as an older person walks into a room people sense the power of his authority and know who to honor. Avraham’s wish is granted, and we – as we grow older – become its beneficiaries.