Hayye Sarah: No One Gets Out Alive

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. (Genesis 23.1)

Literally: “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”

All that lives will die. Even you, even me. Despite exercise and diet. While we know that there are ways we can act that are likely to enhance our days, we cannot control how many there will be.

As with all the stories recorded in our Torah, we approach the death of Sarah as a learning moment. As we have lived and died in many different majority cultures during two millennia of homelessness, different times have produced different commentaries.

Talmud (2-5th century Babylonia) whilst Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared” (Genesis Rabbah 60:16).

Rashi (11th century France): The reason the word שנה shanah, “year”, is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin — for just as at the age of twenty one may regard her as having never sinned, since she had not then reached the age when she was subject to punishment, so, too, when she was one hundred years old she was sinless — and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Rashi on Bereshit Rabbah 58:1).

Midrash (2nd-12th century Europe) The sun of Sarah did not set until the sun of Rivkah had risen, as it is written, “the sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1.5) There is no tzadik / tzadeket [righteous person] who disappears from the world until another is born. (Midrash Lekakh Tov, Genesis 23.1:1)

To this we might add in our own day something that we note as important, even subversive, in our own day: her life partner Abraham took the time to grieve. He did not immediately begin to organize Life After Sarah, or even to arrange for her burial site. He sat down next to the body of Sarah and he wept.

Western culture urges us to keep going, not to let death and sorrow disrupt our routine. In so doing it makes death much harder than necessary. On this Shabbat, consider the alternative: follow in the footsteps of your Jewish ancestors, who search the life and death of loved ones for meaning by which to live. And, most important perhaps, mandate time and space to consider our own in the shadow of theirs. May it be said of us when we die, as of Sarah, that she lived.

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