The Bible’s language is often at variance with the standard prose of our modern Western languages. How would we say the number that is the sum of the following set: 100+20+7? We would say, “127.” We would not say, “one hundred plus twenty plus seven.” And yet, when the Bible reports Sarah’s final attained age, it says, “The sum of Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life.” (Genesis 23:1) This is the normal syntax for a biblical report of the measure of a person’s years. The lifespans of Abraham (Genesis 25:7) and Ishmael (Genesis 25:17) are recorded in the same fashion.
Nonetheless, the Rabbis found the description of Sarah particularly suggestive, probably because of another tradition in Rabbinics, that a person only becomes a fully autonomous moral agent, i.e. fully independent of one’s parents and thus fully responsible for one’s own behavior, at age 20. The Rabbinic comment on the report of Sarah’s lifespan is “Sarah was as virtuous at 100 as she was at 20, and as beautiful at 20 as she was at 7.”
All of this can resonate for a new way for our generation. We are heirs to an important development in psychological understanding going back to the great psychiatrist Erik Erikson. Erikson differed with with his most important mentor, Freud, over the understanding of formative factors in the lives of adults. Far from living out a reiteration of patterns set in childhood, Erikson taught, the adult goes through predictable crises. Resolving one crisis gives the adult better tools for facing and resolving the next one, but the cycle continues throughout life. Erikson’s ideas have been popularized by Gail Sheehy, Daniel Levinson and others, so that now, we are quite comfortable with thinking about a person’s mid-life crisis, or the crisis of the empty-nester, or of the incipient senior citizen.
With this theoretical tool-kit in hand, we can appreciate anew the midrash about Mother Sarah. She was as successful in facing the characteristic crisis of her year 100 as she was in dealing with the 20 year old’s major issues, and those of the 7 year old. With due allowance for the non-realistic numbers of biblical lifespans, a basic correspondence still holds. Sarah the child, Sarah, the woman leaving her parents’ home, and Sarah, the wise old woman, can still speak to us.
At 7, Erikson taught, the child is focused on demonstrating competence. Industry is the life strength called upon, and inferiority is the pitfall to be surmounted. Morally speaking, the 7 year old is often at the stage that the Development Moral theoretician, Lawrence Kohlberg, calls “instrumental exchange.” At 7, a child can begin to understand reciprocity. Let Vlad play with your toy, and Vlad will let you play with his.
Age 7 is not the goal for adults to aspire to. It is deep in the foundations of the moral superstructure we hope to build. When we see adults behaving like 7 year olds, we are correct to criticize them. But they have to get past the “I see it; I want it; it’s mine” stage even to reach the level of instrumental exchange. Some children, and some chronological adults, don’t even get that far.
At the biblical 20 (which is still close to the modern reckoning), the late adolescent has hopefully achieved a sense of identity, avoiding the swamp of role confusion. This allows the late adolescent to embark upon living a life disciplined by fidelity. Building on that, the emergent adult can work on managing intimacy and avoiding the pitfall or curse of isolation, with the goal of accomplishing a life of love. Morally speaking, at this age, a person should have moved past the level of instrumental exchange, to have developed a conscience and an appreciation for the moral requirements of living in society. The homeless person at the traffic light may not help you as much as you help him, but he still has a claim upon your kindness.
The “100” of Sarah’s chronology corresponds to the “Maturity” phase of Erikson’s schema. By then, the adult has hopefully surmounted the crisis of remaining generative, not succumbing to stagnation, and thus been able to manifest care for their world and the people in their lives. Having accomplished that, they are now embarked upon the remaining task, of living with integrity, not giving in to despair. Their payoff is wisdom. Morally, they should be the beacons of post-conventional morality. They should live out the rabbinic teaching that “the reward of the fulfillment of the mitzvah is the mitzvah”, not anything ulterior. They should be able to challenge the rest of us to rise beyond our partial attainments and be better versions of ourselves. If our Mature Ones are not themselves prophets, they should be the children of the prophets—the channels by which the Prophetic lifts up our lives.
The Rabbis are telling us that Sarah was a success as a maiden; and then, as a matron; and finally, as a wise older woman. That does not mean that she had no serious challenges in life. The Bible, sometimes harder hitting than the midrash, shows us Sarah’s life and honor repeatedly threatened, her marriage under strain, and her sense of danger in this world repeatedly confirmed. But she was a success in life, spiritually considered, because of the qualities of self she brought to each of the crises.
Sarah, the Matriarch, is the first of the women lifted up by our Tradition as role models. Be a daughter—and be a son—of Sarah!
Rabbi Michael Panitz