Parshas Chayei Sarah
November 13th-14th, 1998
25 Cheshvan, 5759
Due to unforeseen circumstances, an original Insights issue could not be produced this
week. Below is an essay on the parsha from Rabbi Zev Leff, Rav of Moshav Motisyahu
in Israel, and one of the most dynamic and popular expositors of Torah in the English
speaking community in Israel. It is taken from his book, Outlooks and Insights on
the Weekly Torah Portion (Mesorah Publications, 1993). We hope you enjoy it, and
look forward to being "back on track" next week.
"Remembering the Day of
Sarah died in Kiriath Arba, which is Hebron, in the
land of Canaan. And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her. (Bereishis
Rabbi Yitzchak Karo in his work, Toldos Yitzchak, explains that the account of Sarah's
death is placed between Rivkah's birth and Yitzchak's marriage to remind us that even on
such joyous occasions as a birth or a wedding, one must still remember the day of death.
It is the day of death which puts life in its proper perspective. Thus we
break a glass at a wedding, in part, to temper our joy with a reminder of the fragility of
life and our ultimate mortality (see Berachos 31a and Tosafos ad loc.).
The Midrash interprets the verse, "And G-d saw that all that He had created was very
good" (Bereishis 1:31)--'Good' refers to life; 'very good' to death. We
remember our mortality in order not to love this world too much and forget our ultimate
purpose (R. Yitzchak b. R' Shlomo on Pirkei Avos 3:1).
When one is confronted with the desire to sin, the Gemara (Berachos 5a) tells us, he
should arouse his yetzer hatov [good inclination] to suppress his yetzer hara [evil
inclination]. If he is successful, fine; if not, he should learn Torah. If
learning Torah is sufficient, fine; if not, he should recite Krias Shema [Shema
Yisrael...]. If this succeeds, fine; if not, he should remember the day of death.
From this Gemara, we realize that focusing on our own mortality is not without its own
dangers. Otherwise, why not confront the yetzer hara initially with thoughts of
There are at least three ways that excessive concern
with death can have negative results. When a person is suddenly confronted with his own
mortality, a denial reaction may take place that manifests itself in irrational feelings
of power and ability to overcome any threat. Secondly, awareness of one's mortality can
also lead to despair or feelings that nothing in this world is of any meaning.
Finally, thoughts of mortality can lead to feelings of toatal abandon and frenzied
indulgence in physical pleasures: "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (Isaiah
Each of the stages mentioned by the Gemara is designed to counteract these negative
consequences of remembering one's mortality. The exhortation to exercise one's free
will in overpowering the yetzer hara reminds us of our own limited control in this world:
"Everything is in G-d's hands except the fear of Heaven" (Berachos 33b).
Recognition of this fact prevents delusions of mastery and power.
Studying Torah and G-d's commandments--the second stage recommended by the Gemara for
combating the yetzer hara--reminds us of the value of this world as the arena for
fulfilling G-d's will and earning eternal reward. We thereby counteract feelings of
despair generated by remembering the day of death.
And finally, reading Krias Shema and accepting the yoke
of Heaven restrains us from wallowing in earthly pleasures.
Once we have anticipated all the negative consequences,
we can use the knowledge of our own mortality positively: to remind ourselves that time is
limited, the stakes are high, and if not now, when. "Repent one day before your
demise," Chazal [our Sages] advise us (Pirkei Avos 2:15). In other words, treat
every day as if it were the last and live it with a sense of urgency and desire to secure
one's eternal reward. Talmudei Rabbeinu Yonah (to Berachos 28a) comment on the
[Talmudic] phrase [which contrasts those who follow Torah to those who do not], "We
run and they run. We run to eternal life, and they run to ultimate
destruction," as meaning that one must be constantly aware that he is running towards
his final destiny and do all in his power now to acquire eternal reward.
Considered in this way, awareness of death can be an exhilarating incentive to realize the
spiritual potential in every moment. That, said the Alter of Kelm, was why R' Hamenuna
Zuti entertained the guests at a wedding feast by singing, "Woe to us that we are
dying; woe to us that we are dying" (Berachos 31a). This chant was not a dirge,
but rather a joyous challenge to the new couple to enhance their true simchah [joy].
When R' Akiva saw his students dozing off during shiur [lecture], he awoke them by asking,
'What did [Queen] Esther contemplate that caused her to rule one hundred and twenty seven
provinces? He answered that she had reflected on the life of Sarah, who lived one
hundred and twenty seven years " (Bereishis Rabbah 58:3). Sarah lived a full
one hundred and twenty seven years, each moment utilized to the fullest. Her life
furnished Esther with the model she needed to reach her full potential.. The same
consideration, R' Akiva implied to his students, should lead them to remain attentive and
not slumber during their learning.
The sedrah [Torah portion] recounting Sarah's death is
called Chayei Sarah--the life of Sarah, to teach us that the awareness of death gives
meaning and inspiration to life.
From Outlooks and Insights on the Weekly Torah Portion, by Rabbi Zev Leff.
Insights Into Genesis
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Edelstein is editor of Insights, and Director of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone:
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