THE WISDOM OF THE ZAKEN
On the surface, it would seem somewhat appropriate that the story of the search for a wife for Yitzchak Avinu should begin with the simple statement that Avraham was old, zaken ba beyamim.1 This is a point of transition in regard to our forefathers as the narrative of the Torah essentially switches from the story of Avraham to the story of Yitzchak – and, as such, we are being told that Avraham is in his later years and indeed this is a time for transition. Maharsha, Yoma 28b, d.h. She’ne’mar, however, notes that we have already been told that Avraham is elderly, so why the need to inform us of this again? It is precisely for this reason, Maharsha maintains, that this gemara explains that what this verse is actually telling us is not essentially that Avraham was old but, rather, that he was a zaken in the context of being a Torah scholar, that he never absented himself from the world of Torah study and scholarship. This is the other meaning of the word zaken2 and the meaning of this word in this verse. The question arises, though – as distinct from informing us that Avraham was old – why was it necessary to inform us of Avraham’s Torah scholarship at this juncture, in the prelude to the transition to Yitzchak?
In approaching this question, it may first be of interest to look at this word zaken with its meaning as both an elderly person and a Torah scholar. How are these two concepts interconnected? Torah Temima, Bereishit 24:3, note 1 explains that there would appear to be an inherent connection between age and wisdom as, it would seem, the greater the experiences of life, the greater the learning potential and thus the chance to acquire wisdom. While this correlation is far from absolute – as there are younger individuals who are incredibly wise and, sadly, older people who are essentially still foolish – this definition would seem to have some merit and so it is appropriate for the term zaken to hold both meanings. The problem, however, is that the term zaken is not understood to be a reference to one who is simply wise but, specifically, it refers to one who has Torah wisdom. How does this connect with Torah Temima’s explanation of the term zaken which seems to focus on the wisdom one attains from life experiences? While there is no doubt that the accumulation of Torah wisdom is also the product of time – the more we study, the more Torah we can acquire – and thus would be a product of age, it would seem still not to be the result of life experiences. It is general, secular wisdom that would seem to be more of a product of what we experience, of our daily activities and observations. The term zaken however refers specifically to Torah scholarship. What is, therefore, the connection between life experiences and Torah wisdom?
Torah Temima continues in his comments by making a reference to the fact that what Avraham Avinu actually did with his teachings was challenge the great mistake initiated in the generation of Enosh that led to the advancement of idolatry. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1 explains that the practice of idolatry developed in the world because human beings, believing that God appointed the celestial bodies to govern the world,3 thought it appropriate, and the wish of God, for humans to honour these Divine appointees. Eventually this led to complete idolatry. Avraham’s wisdom in that he understood the essential truth of the Oneness of God challenged this perspective and so he stood for this real truth and fought this false perception of idolatry. It is for this reason that Avraham is referred to as a zaken and so it is with all who came after Avraham who were distinguished with this term. Such an explanation of the word zaken, though, means that it is much more than a description of one’s knowledge of Torah. The term describes a perspective, also, on life itself. It marks how someone looks at the world and, even more so, gains knowledge of the world. Indeed zaken could include a reference to an acquisition of knowledge from life’s experiences – but within a specific perspective. A zaken may be someone who has learned wisdom from life but solely if this education was done from the perspective of Torah, from a perspective of recognition of the One God.
People often lose sight of a simple fact that our conclusions are dependent upon our starting information. Effective wisdom is thus not just dependent on the process of intelligence but the initial assumptions and data. Throughout history, many individuals have been referred to as wise albeit that we now know that the ideas they upheld were not just false but ludicrous. We apologize for this weakness in these wise individuals because we recognize that so much was dependent on their starting points. This is what is distinct about a zaken. His starting point is Torah which has its source in what is revealed to us. The process of knowledge is still intact and life is still studied but this starting point qualitatively defines a different type of wisdom in that there is a Divinely presented starting point. The zaken is thus one who has truly acquired chochma, wisdom, for his method of viewing the world has more validity.4
We now can perhaps understand the significance of this reference to Avraham as a zaken at this point of transition to the narrative about Yitzchak. In declaring Avraham a zaken, the Torah is informing us of his essential purpose, of his role in life and history of establishing the process of true chochma within this world. This is the legacy he now leaves to Yitzchak5 and then to all his descendants. It is not just in our private studies that we advance the knowledge of Torah in the world. It is through our application of the Torah worldview in our life experiences and in the knowledge we gain through these experiences that we advance this worldview. Torah offers us a unique perspective on the world and we are to apply this perspective to gain more understanding of this world, this creation of God. From one zaken to the next, starting with Avraham and the transition to Yitzchak, we are to further this acquisition of true chochma.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Bereishit 24:1.
2 See T.B. Kiddushin 32b
3 While Rambam himself did not believe in astrology, it is easy to see how a person who accepted a concept of astrology could make this mistake that the celestial bodies had some type of authority. In any event, even without considering astrology, seeing how tides are affected by the moon could have also have led to such a conclusion.
4 Bryan Magee in his work “Confessions of a Philosopher” makes a statement to the effect that all human knowledge is still essentially human, i.e. inventions of the human intellect. It was clearly shown through Einstein’s advancements on Newton’s theories that all human beings can attest to is their explanation of what is happening but they can never state the real, inherent truth. Essentially, one could say that without some revealed information, the acquisition of true chochma is not possible. If a zaken is one who has, though, acquired chochma, there must be an element of Revelation in his process.
5 It is interesting to note that the reference to zaken in regard to Eliezer in Bereishit 24:2 is also understood by the gemara to be a reference to Torah scholarship.
© Nishma 2012
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