Chayeh Sarah. The life of Sarah. We begin the parasha reading of her death, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old, such was the span of Sarah’s life. She died in Kiriat Arba in the land of Canaan and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her” (Gen 23:1-2)
Two things come to mind when I read that. One is about how we deal with death, and the other about how we view life.
When Cain killed Abel back in Eden, we never read of how his parents reacted to the death of their son. We know that God reacted by getting pretty angry, cursing Cain for all time and such, but that was for the act of killing Abel, not Abel’s death.
But Abraham really mourned his wife’s death. He spent some time leaving the world behind, focusing on the loss of his wife. After some time, and we don’t know how long, “Abraham rose up from upon his dead” (v. 3) The Hebrew says, “me’al p’nei mai-to”, his face in front of his dead (wife). He honored his wife by attending to her memory with all his attention. Abraham was sitting shiva, the way people still sit shiva today. “Shiva” comes from the word for seven, and the traditional time of the initial mourning period is a week. During that week, one stays away from the world, focusing on the loss. Little by little, after that first week, throughout the first year, we work our way back to the world. Abraham did that, too. He started by arranging for Sarah’s burial. The Torah goes into great detail over this real estate purchase, finding a suitable place to bury his wife. That place was called Machpelah, and our tradition tells us that all the matriarchs and patriarchs (except Rachel) were buried there. Abraham’s first act was making sure his wife Sarah would be honored for the life she lived.
Which brings me to the other point – how we as Jews view life. Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of someone’s death; Yizkor, the memorial service we read on Yom Kippur and several other times throughout the year, both call to mind the date of someone’s death, not their birthday. Did you ever notice that it’s the secular way to celebrate the birthdays of the people we honor- Presidents, Martin Luther King, Jr, Elvis? We may remember the day they died, but it’s not what we make holidays out of. The Jewish tradition is the opposite; we remember and honor the date of death. Why?
Birthdays are promises of a life not yet fulfilled. Who knows what kind of life one is going to live? But the day of one’s death? That’s an opportunity to look back and see what has been accomplished. If you do it right, that’s something to celebrate, to honor, to remember with love and respect. And, knowing that your loved ones will be doing just that is a great motivation to live the kind of life that will engender honor and love and respect. I attended a shiva this week, for a friend’s father. He had lived a long and joyous life. His family mourned his loss, but celebrated his life. And that’s all one could hope for, indeed.