Rashi, commenting to the opening verse of Parashat Chayei-Sara, observes the unusual manner in which the Torah mentions the number of years Sara lived: “Sara’s life was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years – these were Sara’s years.” Rather than simply stating that Sara lived for 127 years, the Torah mentions three distinct units of time – one hundred years, twenty years and seven years. Based on the Midrash, Rashi writes that this formulation points to the fact that all of Sara’s years were equal, that she was just the same at age seven, twenty and hundred, in terms of beauty and piety.
The Ramban questions this Midrashic explanation of the verse, noting that at the end of Parashat Chayei-Sara (25:17), the same formulation is used in mentioning the years of Yishmael’s life: “These were the years of Yishmael’s life: one hundred years, thirty years and seven years.” Yishmael is depicted by Chazal as a sinful character, who eventually repented as an older man (Bava Batra 16a). Clearly, then, it cannot be said of him that all his years were equal, as Rashi said about Sara. Therefore, the Torah’s breaking up the units of Sara’s life cannot be understood as an indication of their similarity, as evidenced by the fact that the same sentence structure is used in reference to Yishmael’s life, which went through drastically different phases.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Mesilot Chayim, suggests a bold explanation in defense of the Midrashic reading cited by Rashi. He asserts that if an evildoer sincerely repents and changes his life, then indeed, his entire life is considered to have lived properly. From a Torah perspective, a person life’s is not merely a composite of many different experiences and actions, but rather a progression. And if a person succeeds in learning from his mistakes and failures, using them as valuable lessons and as springboards for change and advancement, then he or she retroactively transforms them from evil to good. The mistakes we have made do not need to define us for the rest of our lives, and do not even have to remain as stains on our record for the rest of our lives. Through the process of genuine teshuva, whereby we learn and grow from our wrongdoing, we can convert them from moments of disgrace into precious moments of growth. And thus indeed, even about Yishmael it could be said that – as Rashi said about Sara – “kulan shavin le-tova” – “they were all equally good.” Since he ultimately repented, his years of wrongdoing retroactively became years of virtue.
Rav Elazary cites in this context the story told of a certain older man who was asked about his age, and he responded – to the questioner’s astonishment – that he was twenty-eight. The questioner naturally expressed disbelief, and the man explained that he spent much of his life as a delinquent, and it was only at the age of fifty that he succeeded in turning his life around and living nobly and virtuously. As such, he only started really living at the age of fifty, and thus he was just twenty-eight years of age. Rav Elazary writes that from a Torah perspective, this should not be the way we assess our lives. We should not forget about the mistakes we’ve made, but rather learn from them. We should see ourselves in the present as a product of everything we have done in the past, both right and wrong, by learning from our mistakes and utilizing them as catalysts for growth and positive change. If we can do this, then we can say about ourselves, too, that “kulan shavin le-tova,” that each and every stage of our lives was truly good, contributing to the noble personality and character that we are to continuously strive to build.