I am not the first nor even the thousandth to comment on the dissonance between the name of this week’s Parashah and the content—although called “Chayei Sarah” or the “Life of Sarah,” the portion begins with Sarah’s death at the deeply symbolic age of 127 and then proceeds with Abraham’s attempts to procure a proper tomb. One the one hand, there is no dissonance at all, as the “titles” of weekly Torah portions are not thematic headings, simple the first uniquely meaningful words in the section. Yet on the other hand, I tend to believe the words of sages that state that every word and even letter in Torah has meaning—I may not believe this for the same reasons they do—but I believe it nonetheless. Therefore I believe it important to think about the implications of naming a portion “the Life of . . .” where the content is “the Death of . . .”
After having officiated at over 40 funerals in the last 18 months alone I have had to spend a lot of time finding meaningful words to offer in a hesped (eulogy) that celebrate life when we are in the midst of death. While meeting with families before the funeral, I try to get at the details that are truly meaningful for life. What most families find easy to explain are birth dates and places, education, jobs and names of family members. Basically families are quite comfortable presenting a CV. In the case of my congregation, most of these interviews are done through an interpreter as 98% of the congregation speaks Russian— so my attempts to delve deeper are as much thwarted by culture as by tendency. Yet there are always ways with patience to get there. For example, the Rabbinical Assembly’s “Moreh HaDerech” – their Rabbi’s guide for life-cycle events—comments in the section “Questions to ask in preparing for a hesped:
Ask the gathering to describe their loved one, not so much with adjectives, but with memories—
What images come to mind in thinking of (him / her)?
What did (he / she) do to make you laugh?
What was (his / her) greatest love?
What were (his / her) sources of joy?
What concerned (him / her) the most?
Were there any sayings (he / she) was fond of repeating?
In your daily life, what will remind you of (him / her) the most?
What did Judaism mean to (him / her)?
What did you do together with (him / her)?
What will you miss most about (him / her)?
(source: Moreh Derech: The Rabbinical Assembly Rabbi’s Manual Part Aleph, Pages E-9/10, The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, New York, 1998.)
To this I usually add: “What is the one thing that someone who never met (him / her) that they need to know?” and “What makes you smile when you think now of (him / her)?”
Although it is still challenging to get past the resume recitation, often some meaning can be gleaned if one patiently nudges a family in the direction of these sorts of questions (although I have at least twice been presented with actual CVs, some translated, some not, and have been told “We cannot talk to you. It is too painful. Please use this.”)
All of these thoughts bring up several issues. Why, for example, is it that the deepest contemplation of life comes through death, and moreover, why is it that we realize in this contemplation that we seldom know as much about our loved ones as we probably should? The average life expectancy in the world as of 2010 is about 67 years – how much of that time do we spend focusing on knowing (truly knowing, not controlling or possessing) those around us? What about ourselves?
I remember from years ago the somewhat kitschy saying passed around when someone was working a little too hard. “No one lying on their death bed says, ‘Gee I wish I would have spend more time in the office.’” Unfortunately I think there are a few people that would think that, but the point behind the kitsch remains clear—as a people, we tend to spend our lives focusing on exactly the things that in the end will not mean as much as they seem to mean in the moment. We easily give meaning and life energy to the life-or-death seeming deadline where we ramp up the stress hormones in order to please someone who probably is not capable of being pleased while husbands and wives and children and girlfriends and boyfriends and the people that really matter wait at home and pray that the insanity calms down that they may some day find a way back into our lives. I remember a poignant story of a mother dying of cancer, asking her adult child which experience that they had together had meant the most. The daughter talked about a late night discussion they had had when the child was a teen and how close she had felt to her mom in that moment. It wasn’t the Disneyland trip or the movies or the zoos or the interminable car rides to rush to get to that moment of coolness that will surely provide the meaningful meaning to a child’s life. It wasn’t the noise; rather it was the quiet moment of interconnectivity. At the end of one life the only memories that carried true meaning were the ones we tend to give the least attention in our busy lives.
And this insight comes at the moment of death instead of the time when we could have changed our priorities.
I think that the title “the Life of Sarah” given to the narrative of our matriarch Sarah’s death carries neither coincidence nor dissonance. I believe that the seeming contradiction is meant to light up one of the most difficult aspects of our humanity. Today, with few exceptions, we must work or rely on someone working in order to maintain hearth and home. We evolved as a species based partially on the survival ability to complete repetitive, often tedious tasks. Somewhere along the way, we began giving those tasks meaning beyond the implied survival, essentially making clear idols and bowing down before that which should be a means rather than an end.
Yet there is choice, even if it feels like we have none. In these times of financial trouble for so many it feels like there is much less of a choice or that all the choices are bad. But the first step in all aspects of spirituality is awareness. Maybe in this moment the choice is between 70 hours a week in the office, three part-time jobs, or no food. But there is always the choice on how we choose to use our energy. When we get home, are we truly home or is our work still bouncing around in our head? When our child asks us a question or wants to show us a new painting, do we shoo them away so we can take another 10 minutes of Daddy/Mommy alone time and think more on how upset we are at that one thing that happened? Maybe the choices are bad, but the essence of spirituality is to be aware and then still make the most healthy loving choices within those bad choices. An essence of Judaism is to ask, are we bowing down before an idol that is taking us away from the commandment to love our neighbor as our self? Do we even know our neighbors or families or even selves any longer? Is our family going to have to search hard to find those answers when we chas v’chalilah pass from this earth? Is it only through death that we finally allow life to have meaning? As the old tale is told:
One evening a Tsalagi (Cherokee) elder told his grandson about the battle that goes on inside of people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between the two wolves that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It is fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment and inferiority. The other is Happiness. It is joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth and compassion.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The elder simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’”
(My thanks to livewellspace.com and Suzanna Skully for recounting this tale.)