The life of Sarah was: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years -- the years of the life of Sarah (Genesis 23:1).
As you can imagine, the unusual way of stating a basic fact has caught many commentators' attention. Rashi has the most often quoted explanation: That Sarah was without sin at one hundred years old just like she was at age twenty, before she had responsibility for the commandments, and she was as beautiful at age twenty as when she was a little girl of seven.
I'm almost certain that this particular version of Rashi is jumbled -- it's the seven-year-old who is without sin, no? In fact, before I went to my books to check the language, I remembered Rashi saying that Sarah was a beauty at one hundred as she was at the age of twenty, and as pure at twenty as she had been at seven.
The "supercommentaries" -- that's what we call the commentaries on the commentaries, it's the root of a saying I coined that "Jews don't let other Jews read alone" -- anyway, the supercommentaries pick up more on Rashi's approach to the verse than the specifics. The point of Rashi, after all, is to say that Sarah was throughout her life a person with the qualities we associate with childhood, adulthood, and old age. She was pure, beautiful, and wise her entire life. I quoted this teaching at a funeral this week, with my own twist -- that Sarah was energetic like a child, productive like an adult, and wise as an older person all the years of her life.
We usually talk about life in terms of growth. We can't be wise in our early years, the way we (hopefully) get later on. Life is necessary in order to grow. Rashi's interpretation of Sarah's life suggests an alternative. Is it possible to be wise in advance of all our life experience?
I had an eleventh-grade student named Judy who was wise that way. We would read books or discuss history in her 11th grade class, and she would say things that were not just smart but wise. We were discussing The Grapes of Wrath. Judy made the most astounding comment, that John Steinbeck was trying to say that all the New Deal politics in the world would not really change things, unless people changed on the inside. It was the kind of thing that you would say if you had been poor your whole life, or after long experience in community organizing. Here it was in the mind of a seventeen-year-old from suburban Long Island.
When I wrote her college recommendation the following year, I tried to figure out how a teenager could be wise. In her case, it came from a lot of reading, and a family that traveled. She was fortunate to be a person with deep friendships, and a desire to be an organizer in her school clubs.
Judy helped me see the power of reading. We read books, we study Torah, we chew on these in conversation because they give us access to the life experience of others. It's easier sometimes to learn from a conversation about a "third party", which is a story, than to go directly at our own soul. With the Torah, we have access to generations of life experience from all times and places, each time we study a verse or a parasha.
Sarah, viewed through Rashi's lens, had also been able to find wisdom even in her experiences of childhood and young adulthood. My student Judy seemed to get a lot of insight into people and groups by planning events with a group of five or six other teens. There were all the challenges you'll ever face in an adult enterprise -- motivating people, coming to one vision, sharing leadership and responsibility, knowing when to question a plan and when to forge ahead. She seemed to understand that, and I think she took the small task of young people and sensed that she could learn something for later on too.
Some commentators suggest that Sarah was just special -- that most of us have to grow old to grow wise. I suspect that any of us can be wiser at any given time than we realize.
You can't get wise on your own. Valuing wisdom, pursuing it, finding wise company -- if you do these things, you'd be hard pressed to avoid attaining wisdom. Not because it just rubs off, but because by doing them you would already be pretty wise.