Parshas Chayei Sarah: Remembering the Day of Death


rav-zev-leffBy Rabbi Zev Leff

Sarah died in Kiriath Arba which is Hebron in the land of Canaun. And Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her (Bereishis 23: 2).

Rabbi Yitzchak Karo in his work, Toldos Yitzchak, explains that the account of Sarah’s death is placed between Rivkah’s birth and Yitzchak’s marriage to remind us that even on such joyous occasions as a birth or a wedding, one must still remember the day of death. It is the day of death which puts life in its proper perspective. Thus we break a glass at a wedding, in part, to temper our joy with a reminder of the fragility of life and our ultimate mortality (see Berachos 31a and Tosafos ad loc.).

The Midrash interprets the verse, “And God saw that all that He had created was very good” (Bereishis 131)-‘Good’ refers to life; ‘very good’ to death. We remember our mortality in order not to love this world too much and forget our ultimate purpose (R’ Yitzchak b. R’ Shlomo on Pirkei Avos 3:1).

When one is confronted with the desire to sin, the Gemara (Berachos 5a) tells us, he should arouse his yetzer hatov to suppress his yetzer hara. If he is successful, fine; if not, he should learn Torah. If learning Torah is sufficient, fine; if not, he should recite Krias Shema. If this succeeds, fine; if not, he should remember the day of death.

From this Gemara we realize that focusing on our own mortality is not without its own dangers. Otherwise why not confront the yetzer hara initially with thoughts of death?

There are at least three ways that excessive concern with death can have negative results. When a person is suddenly confronted with his own mortality, a denial reaction may take place that manifests itself in irrational feelings of power and ability to overcome any threat. Secondly, awareness of one’s mortality can also lead to despair or feelings that nothing in this world is of any meaning. Finally, thoughts of mortality can lead to feelings of total abandon and frenzied indulgence in physical pleasures “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Yeshayahu 22 13).

Each of the stages mentioned by the Gemara is designed to counteract these negative consequences of remembering one’s mortality. The exhortation to exercise one’s free will in overpowering the yetzer hara reminds us of our own limited control in this world “Everything is in God’s hands except the fear of Heaven” (Berachos 33b). Recognition of this fact prevents delusions of mastery and power.

Studying Torah and God’s commandments-the second stage recommended by the Gemara for combating the yetzer hara – reminds us of the value of this world as the arena for fulfilling God’s will and earning eternal reward. We thereby counteract feelings of despair generated by remembering the day of death.

And finally, reading Krias Shema and accepting the yoke of Heaven restrains us from wallowing in earthly pleasures.

Once we have anticipated all the negative consequences, we can use the knowledge of our own mortality positively: to remind ourselves that time is limited, the stakes are high, and if not now, when. “Repent one day before your demise,” Chazal advise us (Pirkei Avos 2:15). In other words, treat every day as if it were the last and live it with a sense of urgency and desire to secure one’s eternal reward. Talmudei Rabbeinu Yonah (to Berachos 25a) comment on the phrase, “We run and they run. We run to eternal life, and they run to ultimate destruction,” as meaning that one must be constantly aware that he is running towards his final destiny and do all in his power now to acquire eternal reward.

Considered in this way, awareness of death can be an exhilarating incentive to realize the spiritual potential in every moment. That, said the Alter of Kelm, was why R’ Hamenuna Zuti entertained the guests

at a wedding feast by singing, “Woe to us that we are dying; woe to us that we are dying” (Berachos 31a). This chant was not a dirge, but rather a joyous challenge to the new couple to enhance their true simchah.

When R’ Akiva saw his students dozing off during shiur, he awoke them by asking, “What did Esther contemplate that caused her to rule one hundred and twenty seven provinces? He answered that she had reflected on the life of Sarah, who lived one hundred and twenty seven years” (Bereishis Rabbah 58 3). Sarah lived a full one hundred and twenty seven years, each moment utilized to the fullest. Her life furnished Esther with the model she needed to reach her full potential. The same consideration, R’ Akiva implied to his students, should lead them to remain attentive and not slumber during their learning.

The sedrah recounting Sarah’s death is called Chayei Sarah-the life of Sarah, to teach us that the awareness of death gives meaning and inspiration to life.

Chesed – Foundation of Emunah

She said, ‘Drink my Lord,’ and quickly she lowered her jug to her hand and gave him drink. When she finished giving him drink, she said, ‘I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking’ (Bereishis 24 18-19).

Chazal teach us that kindness and benevolence – gemilas chassadim – is one of the pillars upon which the world stands. Yet it still remains to be understood why chesed was the sole criterion which Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, considered in choosing a wife for Yitzchak.

The benefit of chesed in promoting harmony between people is obvious. But there are many sources in Chazal that link chesed to other values where the connection is far less obvious. The Midrash (Yalkut Shoftim 64), for instance, states that one who does acts of chesed is viewed as if he believes in all the miracles that Hashem performed for the Jewish people; one who does not do acts of chesed is considered as if he denied all the miracles. Another Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7) links chesed to emunah: One who rejects chesed is as if he denies God. The Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed (Sotah 14a), and Maharal explains that just as in a chain the connecting links are on the ends, so, too, the links to Hashem that emanate from the Torah are created by chesed.

What exactly is the connection of chesed to emunah? Understanding that connection requires us to consider the ultimate barrier to faith in God. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, hy “d, in Kovetz Ma’amarim, writes that God’s existence is obvious to every human being. The orderly and complex nature of the universe cries out the existence of an intelligent Creator. Only a person’s desires and passions blind him to seeing the truth. Shortsighted self-interest prevents him from recognizing that which is self-evident. Chazal enjoin us from straying after false ideologies with the words, “Do not stray after your heart.” The source of false ideologies is not in the intellect but the heart. The passions of the heart deprive the intellect of the objectivity necessary to acknowledge the truth. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch so beautifully puts its, “Emunah is not the knowledge that there is a God, but rather the acknowledgment.”

Our discussion of a person’s desires as the major barrier to emunah will help us understand a difficult Rashi in Lech Lecha. Rashi says that God miraculously saved the King of Sodom from his fall into a lime pit because there were those who did not believe that Avraham had been miraculously saved from the fiery furnace of Nimrod. Only when they heard of the miraculous deliverance of the King of Sodom, did they retroactively believe in Avraham’s salvation.

Ramban asks what was the connection between the King of Sodom’s miraculous escape and belief in the miracle on Avraham’s behalf. The essence of the miracle on Avraham’s behalf was that he was saved on account of his righteousness and trust in Hashem, factors completely absent in the case of the King of Sodom. Ramban speculates that perhaps the King of Sodom was delivered from the pit when Avraham approached it, and hence it was obvious that he was saved due to the merit of Avraham. But if so, Rashi omitted the crucial detail. In addition, what does Rashi mean that they believed in Avraham retroactively? It would seem rather that they believed in Avraham from that point on.

Avraham’s salvation from the fiery furnace was a matter of public knowledge. It took place before a multitude of spectators who had come to witness Nimrod’s execution of the heretical destroyer of idols. How, then, could there be people who did not believe? The answer is that even well-documented historical occurrences can be denied if their implications point to uncomfortable conclusions. Belief in Avraham’s miraculous deliverance necessitated recognition of an intelligent Creator, Who is involved in this world and rewards the righteous. And that in turn would lead logically to recognition of the need to subjugate oneself to God’s design for the world. Those with uncontrollable passions therefore needed to reject what they or others had clearly seen.

But when the King of Sodom was saved in a miraculous fashion, the miracle no longer needed to be attributed to Divine reward and punishment. It could be argued that supernatural events can benefit the wicked as well as the righteous. No longer did the miracle suggest the existence of a God of justice. The evildoers of that generation could now believe retroactively in Avraham’s miracle, for there was no longer any need to deny its implications. Though Hashem performed this miracle to demonstrate to the non-believers the fickleness of their approach-their lack of intellectual honesty and integrity-they used it to further blind themselves to His reward and punishment.

We have seen that the belief in God is a direct function of one’s freedom from subjective desires and capacity for objectivity. This, then, is the connection between chesed and emunah. Only one who can be selflessly concerned with others, who can divest himself of his own needs and be sensitive to those of others can attain the objectivity needed for the true belief in Hashem. Avraham was rosin hama’aminim-the first and greatest of the believers-and at the same time the pillar of chesed. The two are inseparable.

The Baalei Mussar point out that the difference between a window and a mirror is but a little “kesef”-silver. Kesef is derived from the root “to desire.” When one gives into passions and desires, he sees only himself. Similarly, one who is selfishly concerned only with himself will distort the world. One who frees himself of this selfish perspective and looks out the window to be concerned with others will ultimately have a more honest and objective perspective of the world.

Therefore Eliezer tested Rivkah to see if she was a lover of chesed. He sought not just someone who acted with kindness but a lover of chesed like Avraham, who actually suffered when opportunities to perform chesed did not present themselves.

Eliezer tested Rivkah by asking her for a favor rather than letting her offer first. It is easier to volunteer chesed, which is a boost to one’s own self image, than to acquiesce to another’s request. Eliezer stood by quietly while Rivkah toiled to draw water for his entire flock of camels. He neither offered to help in the slightest way nor expressed any gratitude. Had Rivkah not sought to do chesed for its own sake, she would have been discouraged by his rudeness. Only when Eliezer was convinced that Rivkah’s chesed emanated from complete selflessness, did the test cease. For now he knew that Rivkah’s selflessness guaranteed the objectivity needed for true emunah, and that she was fit to be the mother of the Jewish people.

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