לעילוי נשמת ברוריה בת רות
To the memory of Bruria bat Rut
As Avraham lays Sara to rest in this week’s parsha, the focus shifts to the aging and ultimately, the death of our first patriarch, Avraham Avinu. The Torah tells us (בראשית כד:א):
“ואברהם זקן בא בימים וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל”
“And Avraham was old, advanced in days and the Lord has blessed Avraham with everything”
בא בימים, loosely translated as “advanced in age”, could be literally interpreted as “coming in days”. This strange phraseology led Chazal to famously state that every day of Avraham’s life is deemed complete in his service to God. Therefore as he reaches the point of old age, he is “coming in days”, as if to say: every day is accounted for and complete.
While Avraham is truly the paradigm of a מאמין (believer), the language of Chazal is challenging. How can we assert that Avraham served God fully and completely all the days of his life when we know that he grew up surrounded by avodah zarah?
The Rambam states:
וּבֶן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הִכִּיר אַבְרָהָם אֶת בּוֹרְאוֹ. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִכִּיר וְיָדַע הִתְחִיל לְהָשִׁיב תְּשׁוּבוֹת עַל בְּנֵי אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים וְלַעֲרֹךְ דִּין עִמָּהֶם וְלוֹמַר שֶׁאֵין זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ הָאֱמֶת
Abraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. When he recognized and knew Him, he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path.
While there are opinions that Avraham “found” God at the young age of three, our question is only strengthened by the words of the Rambam who tells us that Avraham’s true service of God begins at the age of forty. How then, do we understand the notion of Chazal that Avraham served Hashem completely all the days of his life?
In order to understand the significance of this pasuk Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, explores a fundamental question in education: what obligation falls upon a parent to educate their children in actively keeping the mitzvot before they reach the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
While there is no outright מצוה דאורייתא to educate young children in the ways of Torah, there is an authoritative belief that teaching Torah to our children is included in the mitzvah of תלמוד תורה. That being said, most of us can attest to a reality in which we have been taught ideas, concepts, habits, rituals etc. only to be forgotten when not practiced. If a child is only taught content without practice how can we assume that as they reach the age of responsibility that they can succeed?
Here the Rebbe shares the following insight: Many times the Torah will obligate us in a mitzvah and then effort is required on our behalf to fulfill it properly. For example, a man is required to put on tefillin. This mitzvah does not only apply to those who have tefillin sitting on their dining room table, rather there is a requirement to do whatever is in one’s power to acquire a set of tefillin. All of the necessary preparation to keep certain mitzvot is included in the original obligation.
We can then apply this same principle to young children. While there is no requirement for them to keep mitzvot before a specific age, the expectation that they will be able to fulfill their obligations properly without proper preparation and practice is unrealistic and therefore we can infer that any preparation for keeping the mitzvot at a younger age (aka: learning about them, actively taking part alongside role models etc) could be included in the later obligation.
The Rebbe states:
כשהתורה מחייבת באיזו מצוה, פשוט שהחיוב חל רק באופן שתוכל להתקיים בדרך הטבע, דלא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, ואם קיומה דורש שהיית זמן אינו עובר על החיוב כל משך אותו הזמן.
When the Torah obligates us in a certain commandment, it is obvious that this obligation is relevant in the ways in which it is humanly possible to be kept – the Torah was NOT given to the angels in heaven. If keeping that mitzvah takes time, you are not sinning as long as you are investing in it, learning about it, practicing…
…all in all, truly doing your best. If someone wanted to build a house no one would tell him that he is wasting his time while he is gathering the necessary supplies. It is all part of the process!
As much as it is in a parent’s nature to invest in the future success of the child, we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that there is no learning curve from the child’s end. It is almost impossible to assert that from the moment Bnei Yisrael were given the Torah at Sinai that everyone was able to keep every mitzvah to perfection from day one. The process of learning the halachot, preparing חפצי מצוה, the objects of the mitzvah, and practicing of new behaviors takes time. Rather, we believe that all of the effort, training, learning, understanding and practice are a part of the greater process of keeping the mitzvot.
While Avraham Avinu may have started his “official” service of God at the age of forty, the Rambam also describes the many years prior, from the time of toddlerhood, where Avraham is questioning, exploring, noticing the world around him and the potential existence of a greater power. All of the years of study and exploration are what bring him to the ultimate state of אמונה and therefore, following the principle of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, those early years are essential and complete in the eyes of Chazal.
No one reaches an end goal without struggle, without questions, or without perseverance. A life that is truly complete with meaning and significance isn’t by nature a perfect one, rather a life in which we are constantly seeking, growing, and trying harder.
When Avraham reaches the ripe old age of one hundred and seventy five we can truly say that he was בא בימים. Every day is a part of his ultimate journey, every day bringing him closer to his mission on this earth. May we all be zoche to learn from him.