Life is a deadly proposition. It matters not who we are, what wealth we have accumulated or the title we claim; our time in this world is limited. Instinctively, when resources are limited, we try to make the most of them, to make them last. In times of financial need, we stretch out dollars until they scream. When grocery shelves are bare, we make sure not to waste the food we have. Even with more frivolous indulgences like the last piece of a delicious cake, we eat it slowly, savouring each bite, to make the most of the experience of eating it. Yet despite this innate frugality towards out possessions, we think nothing of wasting our time, letting the days, the years and sometimes even decades frivolously slip through out fingers with nothing to show for them.
This week’s Torah reading, Chayei Sara, the Life of Sarah, paradoxically begins with the death and burial of Sarah Imenu. “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years” (Bereshit 23:1). Rather than simply stating that Sarah Imenu passed at the age of 127, the word “years” is mentioned three times though only once would have been necessary. Rashi explains that the repetition is to stress that all the years of her life were equal in goodness. An interesting take, as points out Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, as Sarah’s life was anything but “good”: twice she had to pretend to be Abraham’s sister to avoid danger, she was taken into a royal harem, battled infertility for years, and dealt with domestic hardships with Hagar. Rashi adds that this repetition is deliberate, to underscore the exceptional nature of her life, such that her grace at the age of seven, her ethical nature in her twenties and her wisdom at the age of 100, permeated throughout her life. Over time, she built on these earlier qualities and they continued to influence who she would become. Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the fact that it was not an easy life.
Rabbi Moshe Lieber shares the teachings of Haderash B’Halyun and Rav Zusia of Anipoli with regards to Sarah’s outlook on life. Regardless of the circumstances, her motto remained “this too is for the good”. Rabbi Sacks z”l suggests that it is her faith that gave her purpose and helped make meaning of the challenges she faced, it is what gave her a “why” in life. As the Rambam states: every moment in our life is an opportunity (Shemoneh Perakim 5). All of Sarah’s days were good because every moment was filled with meaning. Sarah Imenu embodied love, kindness and generosity. She did her best, each and every day, despite her circumstances and challenges, viewing every day of her life as new beginning, as fresh in her hundreds as in her twenties and in her girlhood.
Rabbi Shneur Zalaman of Liadi explains that there are two main categories of pleasure in life: those that impact the self, fulfilling personal needs and desires, and those that impact the lives of others. The second category, he argues, is the longer lasting of the two. Thus, the Talmud teaches that her impact on the world was so great that she merited to have a Torah portion named in her honor, as “the righteous people, even in death, are called ‘living’, while evil people, even while alive, are called ‘dead’ ” (Brachot 18a). It is through her passing, in understanding her impact on the world and her legacy, that we can truly appreciate the value of her life.
When our children are little, we measure their lives in months: three months, six months, eighteen months, and so on. The milestones are so great that within the space of a year, there is so much growth, that we mark the time in smaller increments to celebrate them all. This is how Sarah lived, no excuses, marking each of her years as important, taking every one of those years as an opportunity to learn and to grow.
Millions of books have been written on productivity as we frantically attempt to cram more and more into our days achieving, in most cases, nothing more than the state of busy. Yet one woman, a wife, a mother, a homemaker, living a slow and intentional life, was arguably not only one of the greatest women alive during her time, but continues to impact our lives, even today, almost 4000 years after her passing. Chayei Sarah reveals the secret to living beyond our physical lives. We need not be great, or wealthy or famous, we just need to be deliberate with our days and live them to the fullest.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School