The Worth of One's Days and One's Death
as printed in Washington Jewish Week 11/13/14
This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-26:18.
A Torah parsha is named after the first words of significance found in the first sentence. In this case, Chayei Sarah or the life of Sarah, is named after a woman’s life that informs us of her death in the first sentence. Why?
We are taught that a person’s worth is calculated by the deeds accomplished in life that cause them to be remembered. When I conduct a funeral, I always remind everyone that while Judaism holds varying beliefs (and disbeliefs) about the afterlife, we give our loved ones eternal life by remembering them. Mourning, shiva, shloshim, yarzheit, Yizkor are the tools of memory. Is anything that we do influenced by a teaching or example that our loved one set for us during his or her life? Do we tell our children stories? In this way, we give them eternal life; in this way they live on forever.
Sarah’s death is described in a way that no other woman’s death is described, her age is stated and there is a redundant phrase at the end of the sentence “these were the years of life of Sarah.” We don’t learn of the way she died, that is left to the rabbis and midrash. The deaths of other women in Torah are either stated in passing, or seemingly minimized in some way.
Commenting on this verse (Genesis 23:1) Rashi reasons that the numbers are repeated because each mention contains a message. At 100, Sarah was as still as beautiful as a 20-year-old and as blameless for sin as a 7-year-old. The phrase “the years of Sarah’s life” indicates that all of the years of her life were equally good. Aviva Zornberg in her book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, writes that it is important to know Sarah’s age when she died because it wasn’t until the barren Sarah gave birth to Isaac that she finally realizes “the intentionality of her life.” Other commentators also say that Sarah’s life never truly began until Isaac was born. By describing Sarah’s death in this way and adding the final phrase, the Torah is attesting to her importance as the first matriarch.
In an oblique way, the story gives eulogy to Sarah’s life. By forcing us to interpret this first sentence “And Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old; these were the years of the life of Sarah” we are required to take stock of the life of this woman named Sarah. Abraham mourns for Sarah, the first case we have of someone mourning in the Torah. The Hebrew word used for mourning is lispod from which we get the mitzvah of hesped, eulogizing the dead. Abraham provides us with the model for this behavior.
In parshat Chayei Sarah we have a unique sentence that not only tells us that Sarah died but also gives us her age. It reminds us of two things: that Sarah’s life had meaning and that we are to look deeply into these verses to truly understand the ramifications of her death and her life. Her death informs all that happens next – Abraham’s search for posterity in the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah and Isaac’s marrying Rebecca in order to perpetuate the promise and the creation of the people Israel. Sarah, our first matriarch, is given eternal life as we yearly read parshat Chayei Sarah, and as we remember all that was done in her name after she died.
There are several commentaries and midrashim about Genesis 23:1 stating Sarah’s death. I’ve listed only a few.
Can you think of any other reasons for this unique verse?
Has someone passed away in your life whose influence on you can still be felt?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this dvar!