Most of the commentaries on Parashat Chayei Sarah focus on the opening line: The life of Sarah was: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years -- the years of the life of Sarah (Genesis 23:1). Why so many words to say the simple fact that Sarah lived 127 years?
Rashi observes that 7, 20, and 100 represent different stages of life. He teaches that Sarah lived each phase fully, and even maintained the important achievements and qualities of each stage as she moved into the next. Rashi sounds a lot like Erik Erikson, the 20th century psychologist who wrote about the eight stages of life, and the particular challenges and achievements of each phase.
Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. Even if each individually does not experience every stage the same way, there are times of life that seem more or less dramatic, more or less consequential. We're not the same from one time of life to the next, and hopefully we grow in wisdom.
There is a downside, though, in treating our life as a series of stages. During my interviews at Temple Beth Abraham, I was asked more than once about my ideas for programs for seniors. One of my responses was: People in the later parts of life have many of the same interests, concerns, questions, and passions as people who are younger. You don't graduate from being a human being. One of the most important things about a synagogue community is that it's one of the few places where we are not sorted by age, where we can pool our collective wisdom.
Sfat Emet, the 19th century chasidic commentator Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, picks up on this line of thinking. He teaches that Sarah's youth, young adulthood, and old age are mentioned individually because indeed, each phase of life has a particular tikkun assigned to it. Tikkun means "repair". Each time of life, Sfat Emet says, gives us a unique problem or situation to fix.
Then he goes a step further. Each moment, according to Sfat Emet, presents its own opportunity for tikkun. Every day suggests a unique wisdom to be learned and passed on, or a unique opportunity to fix an issue in our lives or work on a relationship. So, the Torah does not describe Sarah's life as a single number, the final achievement of a big spiritual goal. Instead, Sarah life is presented as a set of present moments and spiritual opportunities.
Later on, he teaches, Avraham is described as "advanced in years" (Genesis 24:1). In Hebrew, the phrase is ba bayamim, literally "he came with days." Sfat Emet says that Avraham lived each day with all of his days. Each occasion to do a mitzvah was not simply for one day or one stage of life, but stayed with him as a presence every day after.
This is a challenging way to live. But Sfat Emet's take on Sarah and Avraham gives us a different way to look at the calendar or the schedule, as the day begins. Hidden in the commute, the appointments, the meetings, the carpools, there is a tikkun, something waiting to be fixed. And the mitzvah I perform today reappears in a month or a year or a decade. On a day when we feel like we're just punching the clock, phoning it in, going from prearranged place to place-- we remember a day just like that, when the occasion for a mitzvah interrupted and we seized the chance.