Chayei Sarah: Creating Eternity

stop-timeIn chronicling the life of Avraham, we are told in the portion Chayei Sarah that “Avraham was old, well advanced in days, and G-d blessed Avraham in all things.” Seemingly, “old” and “well advanced in days” are synonymous. Why does the verse repeat itself?

Our Sages interpret the qualities of “old” — zakein — and “well advanced in days” — ba bayamim — in the following manner: “Old” alludes to the acquisition of knowledge, while “well advanced in days” refers to the filling of each and every day with the performance of mitzvos.

Commentary on Chayei Sarah: “Aging Gracefully”
Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. III, pp. 773-778 and on
on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will. -Chuck Palahniuk

Time is finite. Our time is finite. Yet it is supposed to be possible to be a part of something that will last forever. I’m not taking about our “immortal souls” and an eternity in “the life of the world to come”, although for those of us who have faith, they are realities. I’m talking about what we build here and now that will last after our flesh and blood bodies have expired and decayed. In Torah Portion Chayei Sarah, we have the lives of Abraham and Sarah who though mortal, live on. Although this week’s Torah Portion is called “The Life of Sarah”, virtually the first event we read is that Sarah dies.

Sarah’s lifetime-the span of Sarah’s life-came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. –Genesis 23:1-2

How are we to understand that the Torah portion called “the Life of Sarah begins with her death? Here’s one viewpoint.

The reading Chayei Sarah (“The life of Sarah”) begins by telling of Sarah’s death, which features in much of the subsequent narrative. This evokes an obvious question: Why is the reading entitled “The life of Sarah”?

This question can be resolved on the basis of our Sages’ statement: “Yaakov our Patriarch did not die.” Although he was mourned and buried, his descendants perpetuate his spiritual heritage. And so, Yaakov is still alive.

The same can be true for any individual. It is the spiritual content of our lives, and not our physical existence, which is fundamental. The boundaries of mortal existence cannot contain this spiritual dimension.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Ongoing Life: The Continuing Effects of Sarah’s Influence”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, p. 338ff; Vol. XV, p. 145ff

We normally think of those things that will live on after us as our work, what we meant to others, and the values we taught people. We also tend to think that our children and grandchildren carry forward our legacy and this is all true. But here we see that there is a spiritual dimension to what we do in life that continues to live and make its presence known. There is an ineffable essence to the nature of what we do in the service of God that has a greater impact on this world than all the monuments, statues, and works of the great and the famous throughout time.

Yet, in considering our hope in the future, we also have these examples.

Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” –Mark 12:24-27

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” –Luke 9:28-33

liveIf we look to our faith and the Author of that faith, we are assured that what we do here and now matters, not only in a physical sense but in the spiritual realm as well (though we don’t understand how it matters). We know that what we do lives on after us, both physically and spiritually. We in fact know that those who have passed away before us are not dead but live eternally and we have been promised that, like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Elijah, we will also live. It would be nice if we could accept this promise in absolute terms so that we would never be afraid of the shortness of breath, a pain across our chest, or a mark on our skin that begins to change. But we are only human.

I know that when we are scared, when we are in pain, when we are sick, we become aware of how frail our lives are and how easily they could be ended. In spite of the promises, our faith can be weak and as human beings we are afraid. As human beings, we can doubt the validity and significance of our lives and our actions. When we are under pressure and feeling stress, hope evaporates like water under the desert sun.

That’s when we need to be reminded.

Derek Leman recently said:

When a loved one is absent, especially is they are far away, we keep some pictures of them. It is an act of love, and something we need, to bring out the pictures and look at them regularly. So, when we study the words of scripture, we remember that God is real though hidden. I find that closely, slowly, repeatedly, thoughtfully lingering over the words and puzzling out their meaning and significance is what brings his Presence near.

Reading the scriptures and studying the Torah Portion are more than just exercises of learning and annual habits. They also serve as a reminder for the frightened and the desperate that there is a strength and a life beyond our own. It is a reminder that we are not alone in the world and that we matter, just as who are at this very moment. What we do matters, not only here and not only now, but in the infinite and timeless eternity were God sits on His Throne. Even our softest and most gentle whisper of kindness has power that resounds across the unseen folds of the universe and is experienced by the great prophets and kings of old and even among the angels.

Sarah and Abraham died but everything they did continues to echo in our world and in the world beyond. Sarah and Abraham died but they live forever. We can be like them if we pay attention to what we do and use our lives and our time as they did. We can fill our days with doing kindness to others and our nights with the study of God’s Word. When you doubt, do good, read, pray, and then remember. We long for God. He longs for us. God lives forever. So will we and in fact, in our acts of charity and righteousness, we already do.

Good Shabbos.

4 thoughts on “Chayei Sarah: Creating Eternity”

  1. Am appreciating this message today, as only last evening i spoke with a widowed friend whose 59th wedding anniversary was three days ago, the first anniversary day she has had to ‘celebrate’ without her beloved spouse present physically.

    Pictures help, her sons and grandchildren help, but most of all she is continuing a decades long and Life-giving routine of “closely, slowly, repeatedly, thoughtfully lingering over the words (of Scripture) and puzzling out their meaning and significance” and for her this “is what brings His presence near.” DL is right, And you are too that “this is more than just exercises of learning and annual habits.”

    None of us has to travel very far to extend kindness or friendship, opportunities exist daily in the home for those of us who do not live alone, and not far outside the door for all of us….

    And good Shabbas to you.

  2. Thanks for the lovely message. Growing old gracefully can be hard, but God helps us to become more like Him instead of bitter, angry, or afraid. We have been given a great gift, the gift of faith. By faith we know that we are eternal beings, and we know that our eternal life will be glorious! I think this allows us to be the people who do the kind of things that impact our world in a good way forever.

  3. Thanks, Louise and Dree. When I started writing my blog about this Torah portion, I didn’t intend for it to be on age, death, and what happens next, but it just came out that way. I read a commentary here and a commentary there and something comes together as my fingers touch the keyboard.

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