November 16, 2011
Attitude of gratitude
Chayei Sara (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
I work as an on-call hospice chaplain, and I am often paged following the death of a patient. I was called recently to support a rather large group who had just witnessed the death of a woman in her 90s, whom I’ll call Bea.
Bea had been not just a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother to family members, but a surrogate grandmother to others, who came to cry with the family.
I shared a prayer written to be read following a death, which includes the phrase: “even though her life was incomplete.”
Bea’s loved ones thanked me but then shared that they disagreed with the prayer. Bea’s life had been absolutely complete. There wasn’t a thing more that she or anyone else had wished she had achieved. They even showed me a video taken the morning of her death. Bea could be seen speaking calmly from her bed, wishing blessings to all of her loved ones, by name. She was clearly at peace with her circumstances and wanted everyone to feel the same.
This week’s portion, Chayei Sara (The Life of Sara), actually begins with her death. The second sentence of the portion reads: “Sarah died in … Canaan; Abraham began to eulogize for her, and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:2).
Commentators often take time this week to eulogize Sara, too. As it says in the Talmud, “Three days are for crying, and seven for eulogizing.” Weeping is essential, but eulogizing, telling the story of a person’s life, must not be put off too long. It is essential to the grieving process to experience both our sadness at the loss, and our faith that the life lived was good, worthy of recollection, an inspiration going forward.
The first sentence of the parasha seems to teach this point. To translate literally, it says: “And the life of Sara was the 100 years and 20 years and 7 years of Sara’s life” (Genesis 3:1).
Why the odd repetitiveness? Rashi, a medieval commentator, writes that it is because all of Sara’s years were equally good. The Sfat Emet, a Chasidic teacher, adds that this doesn’t just mean that no days were especially bad. For a righteous person, no day is any less spectacular than the most amazing day of one’s life. Every year, every day for Sara, was fantastic!
So how do we square this with what we know about Sara’s life: the pain of famine; the disgrace of having to bed local kings to save her husband’s life; the frustration of waiting into her 90s to birth Isaac; and the humiliation of growing to despise, and eventually evict, her servant Hagar and her husband’s first son, Ishmael, from their camp?
Apparently, despite all these hardships, Sara was also consistently happy. According to Jewish teachings, happiness is not the result of good news or pleasant circumstances. It is a matter of perspective. “Aizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko,” it says in the Mishna: Who is rich? The one that is happy with his lot.” Similarly, the Psalmist writes, “Mi haish hechafetz chayim? Ohev yamim lirot tov.” Who among you loves life? The one who wants to see good all his days.
Sara lived every day as a good day not because good things happened, but because she wanted to see them this way. She chose to be satisfied, to find reason for gratitude — as Bea did even on her deathbed. It is a mental exercise that these women model for us all, both on the physical and spiritual planes.
Being “happy with our lot” usually brings to mind the idea of being aware of, and satisfied with, our circumstances. If we choose to, we can find opportunities to appreciate, rather than take for granted or be chronically discontent. Call it an “attitude of gratitude,” a mindfulness practice or a legacy in the making.
Beyond this is the question of calling. Our “lot” or “portion” could just as easily mean our truest work, our destiny. God speaks to our hearts, and if we listen, we can live God’s work through our own. Sara served as half of the partnership that founded our religion, helping her husband Abraham to teach the word of the One God. According to Rashi, when Genesis says the couple traveled with the “souls they had made,” it meant the people who had been won over to the faith that was yet to be named Judaism. Sara was a Teacher of Israel.
May we all learn to live the life of the righteous taught by Sara and by Bea. When we pass away, may there be many who gather to weep, eulogize and dedicate their lives to what we taught, just by how we chose to live.