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Death – A Path for How to Live

By: Rav Ari Shames

I am fully aware that the title of the shiur is not likely to attract many readers but it is hard to learn parshat Chaye Sarah without noticing that it deals primarily with death and the events that surround it.

Up until this point in the Torah we have heard of the death of many people. The phrase which is repeated at the end of each and every one of the individuals mentioned in the ten generations from Adam to Noach states that they died. A similar thing happens in the list from Noach to Avraham. In all of these cases the death is mentioned as a simple fact in the person's biography. The death of Hevel and of all of the people in the world during the flood is noted as these had a tragic context, but aside from that we are not left with any great insights into death.

Our parsha opens with the aftermath of Sarah's death. Avraham comes to eulogize her and to cry for her. This is the first time we feel the loss of an individual that triggers a need to both cry and to eulogize. Rashi quotes the statement of Chazal on this that the one most effected by the demise of a person is their spouse. While the loss of a parent actually triggers more of the laws of mourning in halacha, the spouse is the one who is left to experience daily the gap and void that has been left.

Rav Soloveichik expresses his own personal grief in one of the essays in On Repentance as he describes the loss of his wife and his inability to consult with her over the very text of that essay itself. The natural progression in life is that one leaves their parents and forms a new bond with their spouse. If done properly, it defines the actual identity of each of the individuals in the relationship. A loss of one of them is really a total redefinition of the other. Avraham without Sarah is not the same Avraham that he was before.

The loss brings up a need to both cry and eulogize. I once heard from my esteemed Rosh Hayeshiva Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt"l, that these two elements focus on two different aspects, the past and the future. When we lose a loved one we remember all of the times we shared and long for those moments while at the same time we fear facing the future without them. Our next steps we will have to do on our own without their advice, input and help. (Rav Soloveichik makes a similar comment based on the Gemara that says that the students of Rav tore their cloths upon his death and tore them yet another time when they encountered a seemingly simple area of halacha that they had not learned from him,, and they realized that they would never have that chance again.)

The story surrounding the burial of Sarah is not simply the challenge to find an appropriate location for her body. The purchase of her grave is the first purchase by Avraham in the land that he was promised. Her grave is the opening act of the possession of the land for all of her descendants forever.

The next scene that we encounter is Avraham finding a wife for Yitzchak. This would be a standard story of a parent wanting to find a suitable mate for their child, but it is introduced by noting that Avraham is old. The inference of the introduction is that he was nearing the end of his own life and wanted to make sure that things were in order for the next generation. Here we have another aspect of our relationship with death, fear or apprehension. I am not referring to a fear about what will happen to me after death but rather what will be after my demise with everything that I have built up until that point. Avraham is afraid that his son will be involved in a mismatch which would have the potential to derail everything he has developed. He charges Eliezer with the task of guaranteeing that Yitzchak follow the right path.

We continue to read the parsha and are fascinated by the drama of the story of Rivka and her becoming the wife of Yitzchak. In its final scene we have an incredible backdrop of a sunset with the young maiden arriving to meet her mate. It is the perfect scene to end the saga. However, there is a twist in the plot. We read that Yitzchak brought her to the tent of his mother Sarah. She, Rivka, became his wife and he was comforted after the loss of his mother.

One could have already forgotten the story of the death of Sarah - so much has gone on since - but death has its effect on a wide range of people. Yitzchak was not even mentioned in the opening story of the parsha. We never read of his mourning for his mother. Only now do we see the difficulty that he had been carrying around all this time.

Here again another life lesson that the Torah teaches us. The need to move on, the need to continue to build, is what gave Yitzchak the comfort to get over the loss of his mother. If we all share a common goal of taking the world from where it is to where it should be, and we see ourselves as key players in that effort then we recognize that this is all stronger than the identity of any given person. It would now be up to Yitzchak to take the next step in the building of the nation and by doing so he was perpetuating his mother's memory.

Finally, at the end of the parsha where we read about the actual death of Avraham. We are given a very poetic description of his end.

And these are the days of the years of Abraham's life that he lived: one hundred years and seventy years and five years.

And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people.

And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre,

The field that Abraham had bought from the sons of Heth there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried.

Abraham's age is noted in the standard biographical style, but in addition we are told that he was of good old age and satisfied. He was able to look at his life's goals and smile in satisfaction that he had accomplished what he set out to do. His sons buried him, symbolizing the continuity that he left behind and the location was a very meaningful one. It was not only the original foothold of his in the promised land but it was also the resting place of his beloved Sarah.

Avraham, the man that introduced us to sadness in death, loneliness and fear ended his life with a sense of satisfaction and calm.

Many have pointed out that the name of our parsha is 'the life of Sarah', when the focus is actually her death. Maybe the idea is that the way Avraham experienced her death charted a path for how to live.

Shabbat Shalom


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