Hashem’s Physical Manifestations by Eli Schloss


In this week’s Parashah, Hashem informs Sarah that she will soon bear her first child. Upon hearing this, Sarah laughs and says, “Acharei Veloti Hayetah Li Ednah? VaAdoni Zakein!” “After I am old, shall I have pleasure? And my lord is old!” (BeReishit 18:12). The first half of her comment is straightforward, but to whom does the phrase “And my lord is old” refer to? And what does this phase have to do with Sarah laughing because she will have a child at age 90?

We can resolve this by looking at Rashi’s commentary on the next Pasuk. Hashem speaks to Avraham Avinu and repeats what Sarah Imeinu said about the news. However, instead of Hashem repeating “And my lord is old,” He says “And I am old” (BeReishit 18:13). Rashi explains that Sarah referred to Avraham, but Hashem changed her words to refer to Sarah herself, to preserve peace in the household. Why would Sarah call Avraham old? She did this to show that it was not merely she who was too old to bear a child, but Avraham was also too old; Hashem would have to perform a double miracle.

My great-great grandfather Rav Ephraim Fischel Conterman, who served for many decades as a Rav in New Orleans, offered another approach to Sarah’s strange language in his Sefer Sha’ashu’ei Ephraim. He writes that when Sarah states “And my lord is old,” she is referring to Hashem.

What does it mean that Hashem is “old,” as it were?

Chazal teach us that Hashem’s abilities that He manifests in different situations run parallel with his different perceived physical attributes. For example, when Hashem acts outside of nature by the Yam Suf, He is described as “Hashem Ish Milchamah,” “Hashem, a man of war” (Shemot 15:3), i.e. a young, powerful warrior.

Rav Conterman explains that the Rashbam applies this teaching of Chazal in a line of his An’im Zemirot,[2] which states, “Ziknah BeYom Din UVacharut BeYom Kerav KeIsh Milchamot Yadav Lo Rav,” “Old age on the day of judgment and youth on the day of battle, like a warrior, His hands fought for Him.” The second half of this sentence corresponds to Hashem’s actions at the Yam Suf, in which He is physically described as a warrior when He acts outside of nature. “Ziknah BeYom Din” corresponds to Hashem’s actions that fall within the natural order. In those cases, He is compared to an old man in judgment. An example of “Ziknah BeYom Din” is when Hashem teaches the Torah to Moshe to give to Bnei Yisrael; Hashem would be perceived as an old man in judgment, as opposed to the warrior He is compared to during Keriyat Yam Suf.

Applying this concept back to Sarah Imeinu, Hashem appears to Sarah in a prophecy and proclaims that she will have a child. The fact that Hashem informs her of a coming miracle does not surprise her, but Sarah is surprised that Hashem appears to her as an old man. Since the miracle that Hashem says He will perform is outside of the natural order, He should have appeared to Sarah as a young warrior. Instead, Sarah “sees” Hashem as an old man, confusing her and leading her to state, “And my lord is old.”

But how could Hashem perform a miracle outside of nature with the “physical appearance” of an old man? Hashem himself answers this question by stating, ”HaYipalei MeiHashem Davar?” “Is anything too wondrous for Hashem?” (BeReishit 18:14). This means that regardless of any statements or theories of Chazal and the Rashbam, Hashem can do anything at all times, no matter the way that humans, as it were, “see” Him. Sarah errs in believing that G-d is confined to acting in accordance with his perceived “physical attributes”; Hashem is always capable of anything and everything.

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