It’s Not the Years of Your Life…
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Toldot, which is the only parasha in the Torah that features the patriarch Isaac. While Isaac’s father, Abraham’s, and Isaac’s son, Jacob’s, stories occupy many parashiot, Isaac’s stories are much shorter, or less significant. That seems to be the main reason why Isaac’s life is featured in only one parasha.
Another reason is that Isaac is generally considered a passive character in the Torah, or at least a much more passive person than the other two patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob. Abraham quickly organizes to fight the powerful four kings (see Genesis 14). Jacob’s life is full of clashes and crises. Isaac, instead, seems to walk away from any confrontation, both in his personal life and in his public life.
Since Isaac is the patriarch the Torah tells us the least about him, it is surprising to find out that Isaac is the patriarch who lived the longest of the three. Abraham lived 175 years, Isaac lived 180 years and Jacob lived “only” 147 years. At first, you would expect that a person who lives longer also lives more relevant experiences to be told than someone who lived shorter. However, that is not the case for Isaac, when we compare him to his father and son, the other two forefathers of the Jewish people.
This last fact makes me remember the quote, mistakenly attributed to president Abraham Lincoln, that says, “In the end it’s not the years in your life that counts. It’s life in your years.” Meaning, it is not how long you live but how active and engaged you are while you are alive, or what significant experiences you have in life.
We all yearn to live long (and good!) years. Thanks to the many advancements in medicine, increases in scientific knowledge and general improvements to our way of life, we are able to live much longer and healthier lives than only a few generations ago. That is wonderful, and we should be very thankful for that. Still, we should remember the lessons of our patriarchs and realize that, even when we do our best to be healthy and live longer, it is not in our control to determine how long we will be able to live, or how healthy we will remain. However, up to a certain level, we can choose at any time what kind of life we want to live, what experiences we want to have, and, ultimately, how we want to be remembered.
The lesson from the way the patriarchs’ lives are featured in the Torah is that we will be remembered by how we lived our lives, and not by how long we lived. We will be remembered by what we did during the years of our lives, not by how many of them we lived. Our unique stories make our lives much more memorable than how long they lasted.