It seems odd that our Torah portion this week is entitled Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” when it immediately announces the death of Sarah and recounts nothing of her life!
As always though, the Torah has a purpose and a lesson. Our job is to “turn it and turn it because all is found within it” (Pirkei Avot 5:6) – if we study enough we will discover both the right questions to ask and find the answers we need.
Perhaps we learn how odd indeed it is that we consider death an absolute ending or the inevitable culmination of a person’s life. Maybe the Torah gently suggests exactly the kind of mourning we practice: When someone we love dies, we recount and recall their life. We make their memory an inspiration for us to live better in what remains of our own lives.
True, Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” begins with Sarah’s death and the portion’s title encourages us to scroll back for the last few chapters and read more about this matriarch’s life. But the continuation of the story without her also suggests that “her life” was her legacy: How did her son Isaac and his bride Rebecca carry on her values and traditions and teaching and example? We get a hint that indeed Isaac and Rebecca were very much a part of the eternal aspect of Sarah’s “life” that continued to evolve in the ongoing story of her family and the Jewish People: “Isaac then brought [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)
We can ask ourselves what do we hope our own children, students, colleagues, neighbors, and community will emulate about us when we are gone? What values will we want them to continue to live by? What traditions to maintain? What deeds of kindness and generosity and love to perform as a matter of course and in extraordinary ways?
The corollary question then is: How am I modelling these values and behaviors, and how am I exemplifying what it is I want to be remembered for? Can I love even more? Can I live better attuned to the values and goodness and purpose I lovingly want my friends and family to embrace in their own lives? How can I live with more kindness and righteousness and generosity, with more justice and peace and joy?
This week also marks the second yahrzeit for one of the great leaders of the Jewish People in our generation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l. His is a legacy of teachings and wisdom is learned and put into practice in many homes and communities, touching this generation and through us the next and the next after that. His words are always inspiring, and these especially among them in a video worthy of sharing again and again – Rabbi Sacks, z”l: Why I Am a Jew.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz