Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Days of Our Lives (Chaye Sarah)

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s laborious effort to procure a burial place for her. Through this ironic juxtaposition of the title and the ensuing subject matter, Torah invites us to ponder what constitutes a good life. When we lose someone that we love, we are often moved to reflect on the meaning of their days—and our own.

The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Noting the somewhat verbose and repetitive phrasing here, the great medieval teacher Rashi ( an acronym for RAbbi SHlomo ben Itzchak) suggests that the verse offers a subtle appraisal of Sarah’s life. Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” Rashi answers: “The wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”

But how can this be? In whose life are all the years “equally good”? Certainly not Sarah’s. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him at God’s request three decades later. Her life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi. Indeed, many of us find that we can relate to the character of Sarah precisely because we share her ups and downs.

The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger notes this difficulty with Rashi’s commentary. He teaches: “There must be differences, variations, and changes during a person’s lifetime. There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age. But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days. . . Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time. Thus, ‘They were all equally good.’”

As the Gerer rebbe notes, we all encounter triumph and tragedy and everything in between. Our challenge is to find meaning in all of these experiences—good and bad, sacred and mundane, thrilling and tedious, pleasurable and painful. Some years and days and hours are surely better than others. But as learning opportunities, all are, in a sense, “equally good.” To live consciously and conscientiously is to get the most out of every moment. This is Sarah’s enduring legacy. May it be an inspiration to us, this week and beyond.

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