Our ancient sages raised two interesting questions about the very first verse of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. First, why was this portion, which mentions the matriarch Sarah only to tell us that she had died, entitled Chaye Sarah, which means "the life of Sarah"? The portion tells us nothing about her life but only about her burial and then the story of her son's marriage.
The obvious answer, of course, is that Torah portions take their names from the first important words in the opening verse, in this case: "The life of Sarah was 127 years." But that was much too prosaic an answer for the sages, who were always looking for moral teachings in the verses of Scripture.
What moral did the rabbis find in the title "The life of Sarah"? They taught that "the righteous are called living even after death, while the wicked are called dead even in life." And so Sarah, the righteous mother of Israel, still lives because her example continues to inspire acts of goodness among her descendants.
The second lesson that the rabbis took from that same verse can only be perceived in the original Hebrew. The English translation tells us that Sarah lived to the age of 127. (Don't be put off by the fantastic ages given for many characters in Genesis. That might be a subject for another commentary.) But the Hebrew informs us that "the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty and seven years." Why this strange choice of language?
According to Rashi, it was to teach us that at any age of the one hundred Sarah was as beautiful as she was at twenty, and at the age of twenty she was as sinless as at seven. Fanciful, yes, but a lovely tribute to our matriarch.
The chapter goes on to relate how Abraham, the grieving widower, mourned and wept for Sarah and how he provided a burial place not only for her but for himself and for their descendants as well. He bought land from the Hittites, a large burial cave named Machpelah. Muslims and Jewish tradition locate that cave in today's volatile town of Hebron, where it is enclosed in a mosque, the site of a bloody massacre on Purim 1994. We pray for the day when the descendants of Abraham, Muslim and Jewish, will make Hebron into a place of life and peace, a worthy resting place for our patriarchs and matriarchs.
Rabbi Simeon Maslin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania .