The Blessings of Aging, Tribulations and the Death-Bed
According to the Midrash, the physiology of Man during the time of our Forefathers was very different from what we know today. Rabbi Yaakov ben Manoach (Hizkuni) gives the details, as well as why things changed.
It seems that ancient Man did not show outward signs of aging. This troubled Abraham greatly, as it made things difficult to determine who was older and to whom to show the proper respect because of age. The problem became even more acute when sons would look identical to their fathers and they could not be distinguished. Abraham prayed to God about this problem, God enthusiastically agreed with Abraham, and in response, God made Abraham the first man to visibly age.
Isaac noted that man didn’t necessarily suffer tribulations before his death, and therefore the attribute of Justice would take a complete accounting of ones life. Isaac argued that if there were some tribulations, then absolute Justice would be softened by the attribute of Mercy (whatever that means) and man would not get as full and absolute a punishment as he deserves (presumably in the afterlife). God enthusiastically agreed with Isaac, and in response, God made Isaac the first man with tribulations (poor eyesight) before his death.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, is that Man did not die slowly or of disease. A person would suddenly sneeze and he literally expired (“exhaled his life force out”). This is one of the theories why we say “God Bless You!” or something similar since antiquity. Jacob prayed to God that there should be a slower process to give a person time to get his affairs in order as well as for the family and loved ones to prepare for the eventual death. God enthusiastically agreed with Jacob, and in response God made Jacob the first man to become “deathly ill” allowing everyone to prepare for his actual death.
Aging, tribulations and a death-bed are never easy to bear, but it is both surprising and somewhat comforting that according to Hizkuni our Forefathers actually prayed for such phenomena. What is even more significant is that God actually granted these “gifts” to the Forefathers themselves.
May God take his time in granting us such “gifts” and when he does have to bestow them upon us – may they be with grace.
To the memory of Tziporah Harari and Shula Suede of Alon Shvut, who both got their fair share of illness and tribulations. May their families be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.