Chayei Sara 5762
November 9th-10th, 2001
24 Cheshvan, 5762
One of the famous statements uttered by Balaam, the great Gentile prophet and sorcerer summoned by the King of Moab to curse the Children of Israel in the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), reveals that he had an appreciation of the spiritual grandeur of the Torah path. As he surveyed, from the heights of Ba’al, the encampment of Jacob (a designation referring to the Jewish people collectively), he was moved to bestow this blessing on himself: "May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!"
Was he ready to sign up for conversion classes with Moshe Rabbeinu? Evidently not. Was he prepared to live a life of righteousness--curbing his will before the Will of the Almighty (as expressed in the Torah), sanctifying his physical existence in this world? Not really. There were too many unsanctified delights of the senses (and of the ego) to chase, and as Balaam was a man of great wealth, talent and prestige in ancient Aramean society, whatever he wanted was his for the taking.
And yet, the death of the righteous he craved--the final chapter and the blissful epilogue. For this degree of clear-sightedness, at least, he deserves our respect.
This week’s parsha presents us with not one, but two (and possibly three) deaths of the righteous: Avraham, Sara and Yishmael (who did
teshuva at the end of his life, according to the
Talmud). Not a bad place to look to get some sense of what Balaam was talking about.
"Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life." (23, 1)
Rashi notices the unusual repetition at the end of the verse, "the years of Sarah’s life." What does the Torah mean to teach with that summation? He comments: "They [her years] were all equal in goodness."
The beautiful modern commentary, S’fas
Emes, expounds on Rashi’s words. Most people, as they get older and wiser, tend to "smooth out their way" in this world, forsaking the evil traits and deeds associated with the passion and impetuousness of their bumpy youth. They strive to become more spiritually elevated, in conscious reaction against their earlier follies. Therefore, it is really only in the final period of their time on earth that their days can be crowned with the designation, "days of their life," days that exemplify the true spiritual essence of the life that G-d has graciously given us. For most of us (unfortunately), not all of the days and years are equal in goodness.
In contrast, our matriarch Sara lived out all her days on a path of constant spiritual elevation. She climbed from one level to another, not in flight from a misspent youth, but from an appreciation of the reality that every day (and every moment) brings with it a special opportunity to "repair" some aspect of her self and of the world. All of her years were "years of her life," of wholehearted dedication to fulfilling the divine mission for which she was created. As Rashi says, "They were all equal in goodness."
There were no sudden reversals in Sarah’s later years, or last moments. Her righteous death was a natural culmination of the righteous life she lived. I remember reading in some biography (or biographical essay) about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, the great halakhic authority (and saintly personage) of mid 20th-century America, a comment to the effect that he wanted no change or external "excitement" in his life, just the opportunity to serve G-d steadily in health every day, going about his quiet routine of learning and teaching Torah. In truth, such a person finds "excitement" and challenge in every minute of existence--the challenge of using every moment to its fullest. (Asked about her husband after he died, his wife reportedly said simply: "He enjoyed life.")
What does the Torah say about Avraham’s departure from this world?
"Now these are the days of the years of Avraham’s life which he lived: a
hundred years, seventy years, and five years. And Avraham expired and died
at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people." (25, 7-8)
The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah) famously comments that "no one dies realizing even one half of his desires." This does not apply to the righteous (like Avraham), who die "mature and content." There is no deathbed self-deception here, but a true feeling of satisfaction because they have lived their lives wanting only to come closer to G-d--a goal that can be met no matter what the outward circumstances of one’s life--, and view their death as the transition to an existence where they will more intensely be able to enjoy that very closeness that was their highest wish. (I don’t mean to make this sound easy, for this level of clarity is obviously attained only after years of work on oneself. Nothing in the spiritual life is "automatic.")
What’s more, our Sages tell us that before he or she expires, G-d allows the righteous person to get some glimpse of the joy awaiting him--and that this preview is what contributes to the final contentment mentioned in the verse above.
And what happens after the righteous depart from this world? "…he [Avraham] was gathered to his people." The great medieval commentator, Ovadia Sforno, explains "his people" as the righteous of all generations, who together are bound up in the "bond of eternal life."
I hope that we can do even a bit better than Balaam. To long for the contentment and eternal reward of the righteous, for the death of Sarah or Avraham, is nothing to sneeze at. But Rabbi Ya’akov in Ethics of the Fathers tells us that, "One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the World to Come…" It’s an obvious point, but needs to be emphasized nonetheless: the real trick--and the goal of the Torah--is that we lead lives of righteousness in this world. To die as a Jew is a great honor…to live as a Jew is a far greater joy, privilege and challenge.
My new e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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