Chayei Sarah - Teach Us to Count Our Days (Psalm 90:12)
“Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died” (Genesis 23:1)
“Now these are the days of the years of the life of Abraham that he lived: a hundred years, seventy years, and five years. And Abraham expired and died” (ibid 25:7)
This week’s portion contains one of the most basic and important lessons in our tradition: how to live and die. The portion begins with the story of Sarah’s death and burial, and ends with the deaths of both Abraham and Ishmael. Seemingly, there is an emphasis on death and mourning. But in describing each person’s death, the text first describes the years of their lives. Clearly, ours is a tradition based on living fully, passionately, and with integrity… not on worshipping death.
Clergy and doctors are the professionals who are most with people in the moments of transition from this life, and the old adage is true: no one on their deathbeds wishes they had spent more time in the office. Each moment is precious, and all too often it takes a death or tragic occurrence for us to realize that we need to treasure each day of our lives. How often do we realize that every moment is unique, precious, and not to be repeated? How often do we really live fully? Maybe this is why the Torah reminds us of the different cycles of the lives of Abraham and Sarah when discussing their deaths: they both lived fully without wasting even one day. Both individuals were present in their relationships with other people, with God, and with all aspects of Life. Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, in his Introduction to Chayei Moharan, the Life of Rabbi Nachman said, “There are countless gradations in the life and vitality found in the world… The closer one comes to God, the more his life is genuine life”. Sarah and Abraham are the archetypes of living genuine lives.
It has often been said that one of the major theological differences between Judaism and other traditions is that although we may accept an Olam Haba, a “world to come”; our focus is on the importance of our daily actions in this life…today and now. We do not do good deeds as a bribe to get into heaven; but rather, because they must be done and it is our duty and privilege to do them. There are countless stories of Hasidic masters offering their place in that Olam Haba in order to achieve something worthwhile for a community or individual in this world. We are not living with an eye to that “other world”; but with a passion and desire to do the will of HaShem in this world. Now. To treat each other with respect. Now. To learn Torah; live with integrity; and repair the world. Now. To be fully, passionately, and completely present.
Where else do we learn this lesson about worshipping Life and not death; of treasuring each moment? We only have to look at that great moment of Abraham’s life to find a teaching in how to live. In last week’s portion, we read of Abraham almost sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac. There, we read of God speaking to Abraham, and Abraham responding “Hineni”, “Here I am”. (Gen 22:1) It is this phrase that demonstrates living life fully. When God speaks to them in life-changing moments; Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and others all respond with this simple word. Hineni. It is a one word teaching of how to live. (It is also the name of my rabbinic dissertation, and of Cantor Sam’s first CD.)
Like Sarah and Abraham, we will all eventually die. Sadder even than our deaths though, is how often our fears hold us back, and how many of us don’t really live. This week’s portion is a reminder that when we die, we should have lived each moment as fully as Abraham and Sarah. We need to simultaneously interact with Life with the innocence of a child; the passion of an adult; and the wisdom of an Elder. If we can be present in each moment, living fully, then we too can emulate Abraham and Sarah and have “genuine lives”.
Throughout our texts, God speaks to our leaders, and they respond with that simple phrase “Hineni”, “Here I am”. I contend that each moment, God is speaking to each of us, but most of us don’t really listen. Each moment, God is asking every person the same question He asked to Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Ayecha?” “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). The people that we remember; the ones that made such a difference in the lives of others, were the ones like Abraham who were able to say, “Here I am”.
May all of us have the ability, willingness, and courage to stand up and be counted; to say “Here I am!” May we each be blessed to be present and treasure every moment in our lives; to live passionately and with integrity; to love rather than fear, and to serve Life and God fully and with joy each day. And in doing so, may we be like Sarah and Abraham and truly be blessed with “genuine lives”.
Rabbi Michael Barclay 26th of Cheshvan, 5781 Nov. 13, 2020