It’s Only Skin Deep

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness - Leo Tolstoy

Last week, I was walking along 13th Avenue in Boro Park lost in my thoughts when I glanced down to see that an elderly Yid had wheeled his wheelchair close to me. He smiled at me with a radiant smile. “Ihr hat a veisen bord azoi vie ich, iz kent ihr mir vershtein. Helf mir ois,” he said to me in Yiddish. That is, you have a white beard like me. Therefore, you can understand me so will you please help me out.

If not for the outward signs of my age, this gentleman would not have been able to identify in me a “kindred” soul. Our connection was real. Yet so many people go to the most incredible lengths to erase any evidence of this connection between people who have, as they say, lived a life.

Emuna Braverman writes in about her informal study of the American perspective on aging. “I just want to know,” she muses, “how many ads there are for anti-wrinkle cream; how many ways to thwart the effects of aging?” She notes that once when she went for a facial, she was introduced to a line of products for ‘women with mature skin’. Mature skin? she wondered, What is that supposed to mean? Is it a supposedly uncritical way to say, Your skin looks like leather? That those lines that make clear you have lived a life of joy and sadness should be erased? That the furrow in your brow that speaks to the wisdom of your experience should be smoothed away?

If you take away the lines, do you take away the joy and sadness? The wisdom?

The products dedicated to reducing aging (make no mistake, the “sell” isn’t just that these products get rid of the evidence of your years but that you are actually younger!) seem to proliferate on drug store shelves. Creams. Lotions. Gels. Serums. You name, it’s out there.

And if an over-the counter product isn’t good enough, there’s always Botox. Go to any “reputable” spa and you can find ourselves offered a leech (yes, those leeches!) skin treatment. The more exclusive spas might offer a placenta peel or a gold leaf facial. If you find yourself unable to get to the spa, you might perhaps just resort to the use of Preparation H to remove the puffiness from your skin.

Really? Does none of this sound… well, crazy?

Why the willingness to go to such bizarre extremes to hide your years? Why not age graciously and gracefully – and gratefully?

Our Sages considered a zaken (an elder) as being someone, “…who has acquired wisdom – zeh sh’kanah chochmah”. In their estimation, age and wisdom are badges of honor to embrace, not hide.

I thought of all these things after my short encounter on 13th Avenue. Like our Sages, the gentleman in the wheelchair assumed that age bestowed one with the wisdom to understand the needs of the other. Isn’t that a good thing?

The Torah tells us, V’Avraham zaken – Now Avraham was old. He was bah ba’yamim – well on in years. That he was old is announced as a badge of honor, not as something that should be hidden or “smoothed away”.

In Bereishit, we learn that Noach and many of the generations preceding him lived many more years than Abraham, but this announcement is the first time the Torah mentions old age. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) tells us that it was Avraham himself who prayed for old age. Prior to him, there was no ziknah – there was no aging. Everyone lived a vital, dynamic, vigorous, healthy life until, suddenly, after many long years, life ended. Everybody was “forever young.”

Sh’tuyot! Avraham argued. If a man and his son enter a room side by side, the others in the room should know whom to honor and revere! Avraham prayed that God would bestow us with the crown of old age. Our age should be clear to all so that we know how and to whom we should extend honor, respect and deference.

V’Avraham zaken.

As I contemplated this essay, I texted my insightful fourteen-year-old grandson and asked him, “Josh, why did God create us so that as years progress we look older and then old and even older? Why can’t we always just stay young looking even if we get ‘older’? What’s the point of looking old?”

Several minutes passed and then Josh texted back that it would make no sense for someone to age without looking older. “As one grows older they gain more knowledge and intelligence... and as your knowledge and intelligence grow so does your age and looks. That is why we respect our elders because they are wise, which is why when one looks older you tend to respect them more.” He went on to cite the example of Rav Elazar ben Azariah who looked so young that he refused to accept the august position of Nasi until God gave him an older visage to match his wisdom and learning.”

Avraham would have been thrilled to have Josh Safran in his camp! God embraced Avraham’s prayer that ziknah not be hidden, making it a crown of honor and prestige.

The deeper irony about trying to hide aging with creams and salves is that aging is not only a matter of appearance, it is more than skin deep. On this point, the Midrash continues. Just as Avraham had a wish, so too did Yitzchak. His request is inferred from the pasuk, “When Yitzchak grew old, his eyes became weak from seeing, and he became blind.” Here we find the first time Torah makes any reference to a physical affliction, in this case blindness.

Yaakov too made a request of God which, at first glance, seems strange to request something that is anathema to us, an infirmity? This too was a Torah first.

And then we learn, before Yaakov’s passing, people passed away with a sneeze, puffing out their last breath. Not Yaakov. With Yaakov, his passing follows an illness.

Like his father before him, Yaakov had a request, but his request was not, of course, specifically for illness. Rather, it was that man be given a “warning” before he died; an opportunity to prepare for the final day and to settle his affairs. His request was granted, as reported by a messenger to Joseph, “Behold, your father is choleh – ill.”

In this first mention of illness, the Torah records the fulfillment of Yaakov’s request.

So, what is the connection between the three requests? Age, affliction, illness and then death. The Sefer Vayedaber Moshe explains that it is well-known that one is focused largely on physical pleasures during one’s youth, on “things” as my sister Miriam might say. With age, as our youthfulness recedes from us, we turn our attention from the pleasures of the flesh to the value of the soul. Our priorities change. We find ourselves less concerned with play and more concerned with spirit.

But if we looked the same at sixty as we do at twenty, how would we mature in our priorities? If we look in the mirror and never see the “hints” that time is growing short and we had best turn away from our youthful enterprise and focus on matters of the soul how can we convince ourselves to be prepared for that last breath?

Abraham asks for ziknah, for a concrete and clearly apparent difference between youth and age. With age comes honor – and the impetus to turn our attention to matters of the soul and spirit. For Yitzchak, the physical changes of age were not enough to turn his heart to the things that matter. He sensed what our society knows all too well – that the desire to hide the appearance of age could dominate our attention. Ziknah itself was not enough. So, he asked for infirmity to act as a catalyst for us to move past the foolishness of youth. And for Yaakov? He could explain away anything – including age and infirmity. So, what does he ask for? A “heads up” before death. Confronted by illness, particularly in combination with age and infirmity, certainly prompts a man to repent.

Perhaps the truly wise zaken would recognize in Avraham’s request for ziknah the realization of Yitzchak’s and Yaakov’s wishes as well. The wise zaken understands that as the years pass, it is not only the flesh that is altered (though that is the primary focus of our society’s fixation on “youth”) but we also confront the inevitable infirmities and illness attendant to aging.

Time stands still for no man. That truth alone should motivate us to embrace the gifts that aging brings us and not bemoan the burdens it imposes upon us. The lines in our faces, the deepening furrows in our brows attests to our experience. Our bodies slow down, even more reason to turn our attention from matters of the body to matters of the soul and mind.

Such attention demands a clear, inner eye. If we only seek to see our youthful selves in the mirror, we can never see and embrace the wisdom our years present to us.