Chayei Sarah, in a profound and timeless way, highlights the rewards of a life well lived, a life far into old age that is anchored in faith, loving kindness, and generosity.
We may wonder why a Torah portion that devotes much of its text to the intricate details of Sarah’s death and subsequent events, is called Chayei Sarah (literally, “the life of Sarah”). The reading begins by telling us that Sarah lived 127 years and died in Hebron. Abraham purchases a burial plot and eulogizes her [Genesis 23:1-4]. However, as we read on and absorb the meaning of the story, it becomes clear that the title is an essential element in the lessons to be gleaned.
Contrary to the way in which prevailing American culture celebrates birthdays, Judaism places a greater emphasis on remembering and honoring our dead. We attach more significance to yahrtzeits and Yizkor. In fact, the only birthday celebration mentioned in the Torah is Pharaoh’s [Gen. 40:20], the Egyptian leader of Joseph’s generation.
In America, we not only celebrate our own birthdays and those of our family and friends, but collectively we celebrate the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Judaism does not emphasize completion. When we celebrate milestones such as birthdays or anniversaries, we see these as links in an ongoing chain of challenges. As Dr. Jonas Salk once said, “the reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”
Sarah and Abraham were the ultimate embodiment of this concept. They understood the significance of never being satisfied with the status quo but instead, always seeking to do more, to be more, to give more. By virtue of their steadfast belief in one God, and their unwavering confidence in the innate capacity of people to change and do what is right, and just, they were empowered to transform their beliefs into action. The Torah speaks of “the souls that they had made in Haran,” referring to the people in Haran that followed Sarah and Abraham’s example and ultimately converted to monotheism [Gen.12:5].
Sarah’s desire to create and re-create was the greatest beauty of her life. Even in old age, when Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100, they would usher in a new chapter of our history by preparing to have a child. give birth to a baby, despite their advancing age.
One way we can apply the lessons of Chayei Sarah to our lives today is to rethink our day-to-day perspective. It is only natural for us to prefer our familiar comfort zones, to remain disengaged and apart from those things that do not directly affect us. Oftentimes we “take the easy way out,” perhaps fearful of that which we do not understand or embarrassed by that which we perceive as our shortcomings. Trying new things can certainly present many challenges and risks. But as Winston Churchill said, “success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Like Sarah, we must reach for the next challenge, the next goal. Albert Einstein put it in the simplest terms when he said “life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
Finding satisfaction in the status quo or living by the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will surely lead to a limited life. To the contrary, and to combat this kind of apathy and inertia, Judaism concerns itself with legacy. The matriarch Sarah left such a profound impact on this world that she merited a Torah portion named in her honor. We see that righteous people, even in death, are called “living,” while evil people, even while alive, are called “dead” [Tractate Brachot 18a].
Chayei Sarah calls us to do our very best each day, relying on our faith in God as we navigate the journey of our lives, hopefully leaving the world a better place for our presence in it.
One of Israel’s founding fathers, Shimon Peres, was once asked, in old age, what his greatest achievement was. He replied, “There was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer.”
Rabbi Shlomo Segal is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Moshe of Sheepshead Bay.
Shabbat Candles: 5:33 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:2-31
Havdalah: 6:32 p.m.