It doesn’t take a Talmudic genius to notice something is off about the title of this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Literally translated “The lifetime of Sarah” the portion seems to be ironically titled given that the reading starts with her having already died then proceeds to tell a narrative about Avraham’s servant going to find a wife for Yitzchok. Is the Torah telling us that the only thing that matters in a mothers life is that her son gets married? Might be true for some Jewish mothers… or most of them… but clearly the Torah wants us to take a closer look at the contradiction.
The lifetime of Sarah consisted of one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. The years of Sarah’s life. (Bereishis 23:1)
Rashi further complicates the question when he comments saying “‘The years of Sarah’s life.‘ tells us that they were all equally good.” Equally good? The woman who was kidnapped twice by two different kings, who had to suffer through famine, who for decades had trouble having a child, then (according to the Midrash) has a vision of Avraham going to sacrifice Yitzchok and dies with that image on her mind. How could Rashi be saying her life was equally good?
It’s Not Over Till It’s Over
I recently celebrated my birthday with a group of friends and my Rabbi. (It’s my party, I can have my Rabbi there if I want to.) How did the Rabbi enlighten us about the importance of a birthday? By telling us that birthdays aren’t really something we celebrate in Judaism. In fact the only birthday celebration that’s mentioned in the Torah is Pharaoh’s, not the most aspirational figure.
He went on to say that though there should be some reflection and even some joy on one’s birthday, the thing we are more likely to celebrate about a person is a yahrzeit, the anniversary of a person’s passing. Why celebrate a birthday? What did you do to deserve being born? But if we focus on the culmination of a life then we may have reason to celebrate. How can you say if a movie is good or not until you’ve seen the whole thing? So the Torah chooses Sarah to drive home this point.
We Decide What’s Good
That’s a nice sentiment once we are dead, but what does that do for us who are living today? So another explanation for the Rashi comes from Rabbi Shais Taub (I’m pretty much going to plagiarize his lecture.) He says people can either be a thermometer or a thermostat. That is to say, what’s a thermometer? It tells you the temperature of the room. What’s a thermostat? It changes the temperature of the room.
No one has an easy life. Sure, some have harder tests than others, but we’re all struggling. The question becomes do we let those misfortunes drag us down and color our lives as bleak? Or do we take the best of a bad situation and pull something good out of it? As Rabbi Taub puts it, “We tend to look at life and evaluate life based on how it treats us. Which if you think about it, is not a very smart way to judge the quality of a life… Are you the victim in your story, or are you the protagonist?”
Another way of looking at it (and going back to the birthday idea) is that we weren’t put on this Earth to receive. That’s a mindset of entitlement. “I didn’t get what I wanted or expected, well the whole internet is going to hear about it.” Instead we were put here to do something, to add something to this world that wouldn’t be here without us. When you look at it that way, what makes the better story, the guy who got into college because of alumni preferencing then got a job at his dad’s company? Or the guy who grew up with a disability in a poor neighborhood, worked his way through college, founded his own company and changed the world? It’s over coming our obstacles that make our life worth living.
We all know the saying, “You see what you want to see.” Parents only see their children as angels, people invested in politics will only see the other side as evil. People even become obsessed with numbers as sure fire signs of good fortune. So if we know that we are eager to find supports for our perspectives while marginalizing the ones that conflict, why don’t we decide to see the good and focus on seeing the world that way? The truth is we can if we choose to, and that’s exactly what Sarah did.
What You Leave Behind
We also all know the saying, “you can’t take it with you.” Not your money, not your hours at the gym, not even your relationships (maybe). The one thing Judaism says that follows you to the afterlife are your choices. But what about the mark you leave on the world?
Sarah is mentioned at the top of the portion with Avraham buying her plot, giving her a eulogy, then burying her. But then the Torah follows Eliezer and focuses pages on Rivka. In fact in this portion alone, Rivka gets more attention than Yitzchok gets in the entire Torah. After the whole ordeal is over and Rivka comes back with Eliezer to meet her husband to be, the Torah says, “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah.” (Bereishis 24:67)
Why not the tent of his father, Avraham?
Rashi comments on the verse referencing a Midrash that says that when Sarah was alive, the candles she lit would always burn from Friday until Friday, the bread she cooked was always blessed, and a cloud of shade always hung over the tent. When she died, those blessings disappeared. When Rivka entered those blessings returned.
The actions we do change the world in ways we can’t begin to understand. Being complacent in behavior of others normalizes those behaviors. A smile or a word of encouragement can go a long way. And even though we may not succeed in the big changes we try to make, those efforts pave the way for others. Sarah’s work, sacrifice, and support made a permanent change on the household of Avraham, so much so, that the young Rivka was able to carry on those blessings through her family all the way to the Beis Hamikdash (The Temple) where the Neir Tamid (eternal flame), the Lechem HaPanim (show breads), and the clouds of glory surrounding the Mishkan, we’re all blessings felt by her descendants for years.
Though we don’t actually see Sarah alive in the Life of Sarah, this is the portion where we get to appreciate what she shaped, what that meant, and ultimately teaches us how to have a life that, at all points, is equally good.