October 27, 2010
Teach us to count our days
Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
“Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died. ...” (Genesis 23:1-2).
“Now these are the days of the
years of the life of Abraham that he lived: a hundred years, seventy years, and five years. And Abraham expired and died. ...” (Genesis 25:7-8).
This week’s portion contains one of the most basic and important lessons in our tradition: how to live and die. The portion begins with the story of Sarah’s death and burial, and ends with the deaths of both Abraham and Ishmael. Seemingly, there is an emphasis on death and mourning. But the text first describes the years of their lives before mentioning each person’s death. Clearly, ours is a tradition based on living fully, passionately and with integrity — not on worshipping death.
Clergy and doctors are the professionals who are most with people in the moments of transition from this life, and the old adage is true: No one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time in the office. Each moment is precious, and all too often it takes a death or tragic occurrence for us to realize that we need to treasure each day of our lives. How often do we realize that every moment is unique, precious and not to be repeated? How often do we really live fully?
Maybe this is why the Torah reminds us of the different cycles of the lives of Abraham and Sarah when discussing their deaths: They both lived fully without wasting even one day. Both individuals were present in their relationships with other people, with God and with all aspects of life. In the introduction to his Chayei Moharan, Rabbi Nathan of Breslov wrote, “There are countless gradations in the life and vitality found in the world. ... The closer one comes to God, the more his life is genuine life.” Sarah and Abraham are the archetypes of living genuine lives.
It has often been said that one of the major theological differences between Judaism and other traditions is that although we may accept an Olam Haba, a “world to come,” our lives today are important. We do not do good deeds as a bribe to get into heaven, rather because they must be done and it is our duty and privilege to do them. There are countless stories of Chasidic masters offering their place in that Olam Haba to achieve something worthwhile for a community or individual in this world. We are not living with an eye to that “other world” but with a passion and desire to do the will of Hashem in this world — now. To treat each other with respect — now. To learn Torah, live with integrity and repair the world — now.
Where else do we learn this lesson about worshipping life and not death, of treasuring each moment? We have only to look at that great moment of Abraham’s life in last week’s portion, Vayera, to find a teaching in how to live. We read of Abraham almost sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac; of God speaking to Abraham; and Abraham responding, “Hineni,” “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1). It is this phrase that demonstrates living life fully. When God speaks to each of them in life-changing moments, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel and others respond with this simple word: hineni. It is a one-word teaching of how to live.
Like Sarah and Abraham, we will all eventually die. Sadder even than our deaths, though, is how often our fears hold us back, and how many of us don’t really live. This week’s portion is a reminder that when we die, we should have lived each moment as fully as Abraham and Sarah. We need to simultaneously interact with life with the innocence of a child, the passion of an adult and the wisdom of an elder. If we can be present in each moment, living fully, then we, too, can emulate Abraham and Sarah and have “genuine lives.”
Throughout our texts, God speaks to our leaders, and they respond with that simple phrase, “Hineni.”
I contend that each moment, God is speaking to each of us, but most of us don’t really listen. Each moment, God is asking every person the same question He asked Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Ayeka?” “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). The people who we remember, the ones who made such a difference in the lives of others, were the ones, like Abraham, who were able to say, “Here I am.”
May all of us have the ability, willingness and courage to stand up and be counted; to say, “Here I am!” May we each be blessed to be present and treasure every moment in our lives; to live passionately and with integrity; to love rather than fear; and to serve life and God fully and with joy each day. And in doing so, may we be like Sarah and Abraham and truly be blessed with “genuine lives.”