Why is the parashah that speaks of Sarah's death known as Chaye Sarah – "The Life of Sarah"?
One answer offered by our tradition is derived from a comment in the Talmud (Berachot 18a): "The righteous in their death are called living."
Because of the way she lived her life, Sarah is referred to as if she were still alive. But wait! Does this mean that there really is life after death? Is this something in which Jews have believed? Is this something in which we Jews can or should still believe?
Growing up in an observant Reform household, I was taught that Jews did not believe in life after death. Yes, our beloved dead do "live on in the hearts of those who cherish their memories," but we are more concerned with "life after birth." The early CCAR platforms affirmed the "immortality of the soul," while the Centenary Perspective offered us the open-ended idea that we "share in God's eternality." Later I learned that traditional Judaism includes a plethora of positions on what happens after we die, from belief in bodily resurrection and final judgment at the end of time to the mystic concept of reincarnation.1 So much from which to choose! And who really knows?
But there is one clear afterlife concept that we all share because we have seen it working in our lives. We call it "the immortality of influence." 2 We live on in the lives we have created and/or shaped, in the students we have taught, in the institutions we have helped build, and in the people we have touched, even if that touch was momentary or indirect. What we do forms the ethical wills we write with each moment of our lives.
Creating one's "immortality of influence" requires work. How can we insure this kind of eternal life for ourselves and those who have died but are still in our hearts? Certainly by leading the most moral and most giving lives we can. But there are also other avenues to immorality to which we Jews should pay special attention.
Giving tzedakah. As Scripture says, "Tzedakah [righteous giving] redeems from death." (Proverbs 10:2) Each act of tzedakah not only benefits the recipient but also enriches the life of the giver and sends out autographed ripples across the pond of being that last longer than we ourselves will. And when one who has died is the catalyst for tzedakah, then his or her life continues to be a blessing.
Saying Kaddish. We say Kaddish not for but after our loved ones. "Kaddish is the unique Jewish link that binds the generations of Israel. The grave doesn't hear the Kaddish, but the speaker does, and the words will echo in your heart."3
Donating an organ. Whether the recipient is Mickey Mantle or an unknown person, a Jew or a Gentile, we can save a life and thereby save a world, gaining immortality through the one in whose body we live on, as well as through the lives that person touches.
Living Jewish lives and strengthening the Jewish people. We are immortal because we are part of an eternal people.
As Z. Hillel writes, "With Sarah's death was initiated her eternal life.... When some people die, they leave nothing behind. But after Sarah and Abraham died, the Jewish people remained. For the first time in human history, there was continuity. Within the Jewish people live all of Abraham and Sarah's characteristics and values...."4 Sarah and her righteousness are living still-in us and through us. We are her immortality. As we strive for righteousness, our life becomes the "Life of Sarah."
- What Happens After I Die by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme
- I learned this phrase from our teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweiss.
- From an ethical will by Dr. William Abromowitz, as quoted in So that Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Professor Nathaniel Stampfer
- Iturei Torah, Chaye Sarah
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff is the rabbi of Temple B'nai Or in Morristown, NJ.