I’ve often asked people to describe their image of a Torah sage or a Tzaddik (holy person). Most people imagine a frail old man, pale, stooped over and often wearing thick glasses. Why can’t the person also be a woman or a young dynamic robust fellow? But most people, when they imagine “Torah sage,” or Tzaddik think of a frail old man.
When I was growing up, I had a very clear image of a Tzaddik sage — it came from a picture in my living room of three rabbis learning Torah. They were very old, with long white beards and glasses. They were sitting, bent over, around a table piled with books engaged in a deep Talmudic discussion. One looked like an umpire yelling, “You’re out!” The other one looked like he was shouting, “No!” And the third one seemed to be mouthing, “Oy Vey!”
To me, that picture was Judaism. I did not want to see myself in that picture. That picture alone stifled my openness for getting more involved as a Jew because I did not like and could not relate to it. Simply, I did not want to be weak and old. I did not want to be in that unattractive dark gloomy room, sitting over a pile of books, involved with some seemingly irrelevant Talmudic discussion of minute details. Somebody’s unattractive picture was my baggage.
Later in my life I realized that this picture, which my parents had bought in Israel, had actually determined what a Torah Jew looked like to me. For a long time that picture was my only image of Judaism because it was engraved in my mind — a graven image, so to speak. And I had to work to get past it, if I really wanted to know about God, Torah, commandments, Sabbath, and other Jewish topics.
The Kabbalah teaches that the archetypical biblical personality who epitomizes the Tzaddik is Joseph. And yet when we picture Joseph we rarely think of him as an old man. He was a young dreamer. He was dynamic, colorfully dressed, charismatic, and quite handsome. He was a sage and yet also a statesman. And yet, even though he became the powerful viceroy of Egypt, he always humbly had the name of G-d on his lips.
Funny. He didn’t look religious. But he was.