Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Chayei Sarah

There is a poem that reminds us that, when looking at someone’s biography, their life is valued not by the dates of its beginning or end, but by all that the dash between the dates represents. The dates of birth and death define the parameters of the lens through which we view life, but speak very little to its value. In truth, one who lives a short time can have a profound effect on the world, while one who languishes for years may have very little. Still though, we speak of life in terms of its length and default to arguing that one who lives many years lived a “full life,” while one who died young was somehow cheated (or cheated us). 

I recall a story of the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who prayed to see how justice in the world unfolded. So the prophet Elijah took him on a journey, in the hopes of helping the sage understand. In the evening, they came to the hut of a poor couple.  All they had was one cow. Still, they accepted the guests with wonderful hospitality.   During the night, Rabbi Yehoshua saw that Elijah prayed that the cow should die. “How could you do this to these wonderful people?

Before he could even get the questions all out of his mouth, they found themselves at a community of simple working people.  Upon seeing the two distinguished travelers, the townspeople treated them with great honor and couldn’t do enough for them. Before parting, Elijah blessed the people and then said to them, “May God bless you that you have only one leader.”  In the next town they came to, people were mean and unkind. Before parting, Elijah said to the townspeople, “May it be the will of God that all of you be leaders!”

At this point, the Rabbi couldn’t restrain himself and had to question the prophet, “Everything you did so far does not make any sense, what am I supposed to learn? How come you were cruel to the poor couple?  They were so good to us, yet you prayed that their cow should die!” Elijah replied, “I knew that the woman was to pass away that night.  Therefore I prayed to God to take the cow instead!”


“Why were you unkind to the nice people by wishing them to have only one leader; while you blessed the people of the other community that they should all be leaders?” Rabbi Yehoshua persisted. “You are making a mistake,” answered Elijah.  “Wishing the townspeople to have one leader is a blessing, while wishing that all others be leaders is truly a curse!  A community who has one leader will prosper and flourish while a community where everyone is a leader will continuously quarrel and fight.”

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words “The life of Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years.” The sages spend a lot of energy making sense of why the text doesn’t simply say that she lived 127 years. Because none of our lives are that simple. To only  do the math of the years between the dates offers us little insight, but looking more deeply into what happened during those years provides us with a way to assess the ultimate value of living.

However we want to interpret the break-up of her years, the text tells us that life goes on in stages; that there are times when our lives change course; and times when those changes make us start counting “new time,” all over again. More importantly, even while we can trace someone’s biography, we cannot always know that what we think is obvious ever is. We suffer accusations from people often because of their baggage as much as anything we do or have done. We gain admiration from people, often clueless of what we did to deserve it.

At best, we can only guess at what motivates people around us. Focusing predominantly on how their actions affect us, we fail to see how those same actions affect them. When we are so focused on our own perceptions, we lose the ability to see the value of someone’s life as it passes through stages.

Sarah goes from being one hundred and twenty and seven, to 127, and all of her life amalgamates into one brief biographical footnote. Her life was filled with adventures that kept her vibrant and alive, even through the difficult episodes the text depicts. The “dash between her dates” exists … and it seems meaningless. We think we know a lot about people with whom we are close; we think we can fill in the biography of the dash. WE may be able to share what we experienced happening, but only if we truly open ourselves to each other can we ever know the full “what” or “why” … the value of what we perceived or failed to perceive.

Not one of us is simply the simple sum of the years we live. In truth, for each of us, there are more than three watershed moments in life … there may be three in one day … events that completely change the way in which we see the world. We destroy each other’s dignity when we are presumptuous enough to believe that we know the value of someone else’s life, and that we can sum up their life experience with our own words and ideas,. Rather, we must learn to learn from each other, to remember how important it is that we let people tell their own stories no differently than we wish to tell our own. There is an intimacy that grows in this heartfelt respect and assurance of each other’s dignity. This intimacy is what brings us to share in holiness, and helps us to use our empathy to heal the world.


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Marc A. Kline