Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
The name of this week’s parasha is one of the most beautiful in the Torah – Hayei Sara (The Life of Sarah). But when we start looking at the parasha, we see that it deals with death much more than it deals with life. As the parasha begins, we read about Sarah’s death and burial, and at the end, we read of Abraham’s death and burial.
Is the parasha’s name nothing more than irony? Doubtful. Abraham and Sarah’s deaths are described in the Torah and in the midrash as events that could illuminate life.
The midrash states that Sarah’s years were equal in goodness: “A hundred as 20 – for beauty; 20 as seven – for sin” (Yalkut Shimoni). About Abraham, the Torah states: “And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25:8).
Abraham and Sarah’s deaths are not seen as tragic, but rather as the successful conclusion of full lives, lived correctly and which left their mark on humanity to this very day.
The finality and inescapability of death can influence people’s lives in different ways.
There are those who see death as a mockery of life.
Man tries to act and have an impact in his life, but at the end of the day he dies and disappears from memory, as do his deeds. And there are those who see death as an impetus, a drive to accomplish more, to influence and fix things in the short time we have to live.
Abraham and Sarah are the perfect role models of people for whom death does not deter them from life.
The lives they led were so full that even when death came, and it came to them as it would to anyone, it did not make their lives devoid of significance.
On the other hand, Esau, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, was asked by his younger brother Jacob to sell him his firstborn rights. Esau’s response is quoted in the Torah: “Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?” (Gen. 25:32).
The sages of the midrash, in relating to Esau’s words, quoted the verse “Weep not for the dead, neither bemoan him: weep for him who goes away....” (Jeremiah 22:10), and used that as a comparison between Abraham and his grandson Esau: “Weep not for the dead – this is Abraham; weep for him who goes away – this is Esau” (Genesis Raba 63:11).
According to Jewish tradition, on the same day that Esau said “I am going to die,” Abraham’s funeral was taking place. The sages of the midrash said about this: “Weep not for the dead – this is Abraham.” Do not cry for Abraham who died, because his life was rich in content and deed. Death was not a threat to him and did not detract from his life’s significance. “Weep for him who goes away – this is Esau.”
Whom should we cry over? Esau, whose entire life was moving toward death; he was “going to die” for many years before he reached his finish line.
These two perspectives on death and life are not fate. Man has the ability to choose how to live his life – like Abraham, who lived a full and rich life and died “satisfied,” or as Esau, whose life was not lived but was painted by the dreary hues of the shadow of death. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.