|Chayei Sarah – Life to the Fullest|
by Nathan Joiner, Ruach Israel, Needham, MA
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
Chayei Sarah means, “the life of Sarah,” and yet this parasha begins with her death and burial, and ends with Abraham’s death. Why was this parasha not called the death of Sarah?
Parashat Chayei Sarah marks a significant generational transition. The parasha is book-ended by the death of Sarah and the death of Abraham. In the middle is the elaborate tale of Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah.
In Jewish tradition the lives of Abraham and Sarah are idealized. Genesis Rabbah tells us that when Genesis 23:1 says, “The lifetime of Sarah consisted of one hundred and twenty seven years,” it implies that Sarah was as innocent as a seven-year-old when she was twenty and had the beauty of a twenty-year-old when she was 100.
Rashi extrapolates from the second half of verse 23:1, “These were the years of Sarah’s life,” that all of Sarah’s years were equally good. Yet didn’t Sarah suffer years and years of barrenness? She threw Hagar out after giving her to Abraham, and laughed out of disbelief when God told her that she’d have a child. Sarah was kidnapped twice, and tradition talks about how Sarah died of shock when she learned that Abraham had gone to sacrifice Isaac, her only son! How were all of Sarah’s years equally good?
Genesis 24:1 says, “Abraham was now old, advanced in days.” In Jewish tradition “old” (zaqen) is associated with wisdom. Our midrash explains though many had lived long lives, Abraham was the first to be called old because he was the first to grow wiser as he grew older. The rabbis ask the question, “Why does the Torah add, ‘advanced in days’?” The answer is that Abraham was able to recount what he did each day of his life. In Genesis 25:7, the Torah says, “These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life.”
Tradition tells us that while most people’s lives can be measured in years, Abraham’s life could be measured in days.
Like Sarah, Abraham certainly did not have it easy. He had to leave everything he knew to go to an unknown land. He traveled his whole life through trying desert conditions, and had to compromise on multiple occasions, even risking his own wife’s life. He went through circumcision as an adult, and finally had to take his own son to the altar. We don’t get the impression from the Torah that Abraham and Sarah had the ideal marriage, at least as we’d understand it today.
So why does the tradition say that all of Sarah’s years were equally good and that Abraham lived every day to the fullest? Are they not taking into account the days of labor in harsh living conditions?
The idea here is that a full life well-lived is not a life of perfection or comfort. But it is a life living after God and his ways. Abraham and Sarah lived full and meaningful lives because they said yes to God at every turn. No minute was wasted because they were always seeking to do the right thing and be on the path that God had for them, even if they messed up or it was challenging.
Looking at our own lives, can we say that we have thus far lived a full life? Are we the kind of people who will be able to say on our deathbed that we used every day we were given to the fullest value? Certainly there will be messiness, and trials, but do we wake up every day and commit ourselves to following God’s will in our lives?
What will the days of the years of your life be?