Why is the parashah that speaks of Sarah's death known as Chayei 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
Actions speak louder than words. It's what's on the inside that counts. Don't judge a book by its cover. Physical beauty is only skin deep; it's inner beauty that matters. "Good deeds are better than wise sayings." (Pirkei Avot). In Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis. 23:1-25:18) we find that all these sayings ring true when it comes to the matter of choosing a bride for Isaac.
Let's set the scene. Sarah, our first matriarch, has passed away at the age of 127. Abraham and Isaac are in mourning. Because Isaac is not married and has no children, there is no guaranteed future for the Israelite people. Eliezer, Abraham's senior servant, is sent by Abraham to the latter's native land of Haran to find a bride for Isaac. Faced with this challenging task, Eliezer devises a "test" to use in order to find a bride who is appropriate for Isaac and who will be the next matriarch of the Israelites. Eliezer said: "Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels'- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that you have dealt graciously with my master." (Genesis 24:13-14)
Rebecca arrives at the well with her jar visible, making no attempt to hide it to insure that no one bothers her for a drink of water. Eliezer sees Rebecca and asks for a sip of water. Without hesitation, she invites him to drink. After he has quenched his thirst, she offers to draw water for his camels. Rebecca makes this offer after Eliezer has already drunk so that it does not appear that she is equating him with the camels, while at the same time she does not withhold water from his animals.
Eliezer is interested in inner beauty, not physical appearance. Rebecca's clothes, jewelry, figure, and face are not described in the parashah. Rather, she is described by her actions and her deeds. Her behavior demonstrates her kindness and character, her chesed. She does not turn away from a stranger nor judge him.
The importance of chesed is found in many of our texts. In Pirkei Avot it is written that the world is founded on three things: Torah, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness). The rabbis also taught, "In three respects are gemilut chasadim superior to charity: Charity can be done only with one's money, whereas gemilut chasadim can be done with one's person and one's money; charity can be given only to the poor, whereas gemilut chasadim can be done for both the rich and the poor; charity can be given to the living only, whereas gemilut chasadim can be done both for the living and the dead [by attending to funeral needs]." (Tractate Sukkah 49b)
Rebecca doesn't know that Eliezer is testing her. As individuals, we are being tested every day-for example, by the beggar on the street corner and by the family we see living in a car. Our communal institutions are also tested each day by the diverse and numerous needs that exist in our community and by the limited resources, both monetary and human. These are not tests for which we can prepare: The answers to them must come from within.
Questions for Discussion
- What virtues do you look for in others?
- Who do you know that possesses Rebecca's character traits?
- What have you done recently for which you would like to be remembered?
- How are the values of our matriarchs (and patriarchs) represented in your life?
- Rebecca is a wonderful role model. Who are some of today's role models? Do they possess "real beauty"?
- How can we show chesed without feeling overwhelmed by the many ways we might be of help?
- Can you think of examples of "institutionalized chesed"?
- How can you help take care of the needs of others and of the community without neglecting your own needs?
- What are some examples of kindness that can be done for anyone, rich or poor, child or adult?
- Is it hard for you to accept kindness from another person? If so, why? How does being the recipient of kindness from another make you feel? What do the following statements mean to you?
"Happy is the person who clings to it [chesed] wholeheartedly, since they acquire merit for the coming generations." (Ahavath Chesed, the Chafetz Chaim)
"Kindness is a lot of things: It is a way of thinking and a way of doing. It is a way of being ... the way God wants you to be." (Kindness Is a Lot of Things, C. R. Gibson)
For Further Reading
Ahavath Chesed, the Chafetz Chaim, Feldheim Publishers, 1976.
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132