Rabbi Ilan Glazer
Immediately following Sarah’s burial, the text tells us: “v’Avraham zaken, ba bayamim,” “Avraham was old, advanced in years.” Jewish tradition understands zaken as an acronym for “Zeh Kanah Chochmah, this one has acquired wisdom.” Breishit Rabbah 59:6 teaches us that Avraham is both wise and advanced in age. Avraham is the first person in history to grow wiser as he grew older. After the death of Sarah, his wife and companion for many years, Avraham is confronted with his own imminent death. Now that Sarah is gone, Avraham realized he needed to find a wife for Isaac, to continue the Jewish story.
Joshua and David are the only two others in Tanach who are described as “zaken, ba bayamim.” God tells Joshua that his task of reconquering the land of Canaan is not yet complete. Before his death, Joshua must transfer his leadership to others, and gain the assurance from the people that they will not forsake God or God’s commandments. Joshua calls for the elders, heads, judges and officers of the Israelites, and then reestablishes the covenant with them, and with all of the Israelites.
When David’s son, Adoniyahu, proclaims himself to be king and the rightful heir to David’s throne, David swears that Solomon will be his successor. David has Solomon anointed with oil and instructs Solomon to remain faithful to God’s teachings and mitzvot.
Avraham, Joshua and King David are all charged with ensuring the continuation of the Israelite peoples’ relationship to God. All three accomplish this task with the assistance of a formal oath: Avraham has his servant swear that he will find a wife for Isaac, Joshua has B’nei Israel swear that they will continue to obey God’s mitzvot and King David himself swears that Solomon will succeed him and ensures that Solomon will also continue to find favor before God. Having accomplished their respective tasks of transition, each of these leaders dies shortly thereafter.
What is it that we need to finish before we die? What tasks call out to us? What work do we have left unfinished? Avraham, Joshua and King David made oaths to ensure the transition from their generations to those of their descendants. What messages do we want to pass on to our children, and to our grandchildren? What oaths might we need to make to ensure that our values live on in our descendants? Let us begin that process, and let us take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish our tasks, so that we too can die as Avraham did, “bsaivah tovah zaken vesavea” (25:8), at “a good ripe age, wise and contented.” May it be so for us all.
Rabbi Ilan Glazer is the founder of Our Jewish Recovery, a new movement dedicated to supporting those impacted by the disease of addiction in the Jewish community.