The story of Abraham contains many parallels within itself. His and Sarah’s encounter with Pharaoah in Parshat Lech-Lecha finds a recapitulation in their later encounter with Avimelech in Parshat Vayera. Hagar’s first banishment is paralleled by her second. And the covenant that is established through circumcision at the end of Lech-Lecha is echoed in the reaffirmation of the covenant at the end of Vayera, through the Akedah (Binding of Isaac).
The story also contains mirror images. The most famous of these comes at the beginning of the Akedah, when God instructs Abraham to “take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and lech-lecha, go to the land of Moriah” (Gen. 22:1). This of course reflects back the opening lines of the story of Abraham, which begin with lech-lecha el ha-aretz asher areka: Go to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).
A final recurrence of this type comes in this week’s parasha, when the Torah tells us v’avraham zaken ba-bayamim vadonai berach avraham bakol, “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1). Rashi reminds us that bakol in Hebrew has the numerical value of 52, the same as the word ben, or son. Thus once Abraham had been blessed with a son, he was blessed with everything.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different approach on the entire verse. In his unique style, he finds philological linkages between the roots of the words zaken, old, and sakanah, danger. Hirsch does not say that old age is a time of danger. Rather, he uses the word sakanah, and its related words saken (risk) and sikui (chance) to reflect that a person who is described as a zaken partakes of the openness to possibility possessed by a person mature in experience.
Most usefully, he contrasts this with the word for adolescent youth, na’ar, which he reminds us also means to shake or shake off. Whereas during the period of adolescence we shake off that which has constrained us in the act of self-authorship, in ripe older age we sense what the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called a period of “generativity,” when we are open to the world and able to give back to it.
Quoting the Talmud in Bava Batra (16b), Hirsch says that this aspect of Abraham was so pronounced that people from far and wide could readily recognize his wisdom. Abraham’s openness to the world, his sense of integrity of mission and purpose with his outward actions, shone like a jewel.
The haftarah for this parasha offers a useful contrast that further highlights Abraham’s achievement. Here we have the story of King David’s old age and death. And while David is similarly concerned with the future, he handles it far less elegantly than Abraham, focusing as he does on settling political scores and securing Solomon’s place on the throne among his feuding sons. Abraham had some of the same things to deal with–the future was not yet entirely secure, even though the line of succession had been established, since Isaac did not yet have a wife and children. But Abraham exudes a kind of grace and faith that things will work out which doesn’t come through in David’s story. Abraham is elegant, David is rough. Both are real.