The Measure of an Extraordinary Life

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“We contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman

Many years ago, I was having Friday night dinner at a friend’s house, and when I arrived, I was taken aback momentarily, when I saw her sitting on the couch, an open Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) on her lap, with tears streaming down her face. “Tova!” I exclaimed as I rushed to her side, “What’s wrong?” “Sarah Emeinu (Sarah, our foremother) just died” was her simple response, as she had just finished reading the account of Sarah’s death in the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Ironically, Chayei Sarah, which means, “the Life of Sarah” opens with news of Sarah’s death.  

Now my friend had grown up in a household where Torah was in her mother’s milk, and no doubt she had read these very passages dozens of times. Seeing her reaction, however, of unfeigned emotion and personal connection to the written text, the terms “life” and “death” were irrelevant. If Sarah was not a disconnected personage from the ancient past, but a living presence to relate to, who was she?

And Behind Every Successful Man…

Like Abraham, Sarah endured many trials and hardships. Like Abraham, she embodied the quality of chesed, (kindness) and lived with selfless generosity. And like Abraham, she was fueled by a sense of mission and purpose, knowing she was destined in some fashion to mother a nation that would transform the world.

But where Sarah was greater than Abraham (and our tradition says that she was an even greater prophetess) was in her ability to harmonize different qualities, and to draw from herself, that which needed to be expressed. And so, at times, she served the moment by being expansive, wide open and self-sacrificing. For the sake of ensuring a legacy, for example, she could draw another woman into her husband’s bed. Other times, that mission required her to draw boundaries with a love that was fierce and protective, and with judgment unclouded by sentiment. And so Sarah saw clearly when that same woman needed to be ejected from the family circle. Simply, Sarah knew when to be what, and so in addition to their shared values, Sarah’s grounded feminine complexity afforded Abraham the luxury to pursue a life of singular virtue.  

What is the Measure of a Life?

Instead of telling us that Sarah died at the age 127, her lifespan is described in a curious manner: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that Sarah’s life had three stages: 100 and 20 and 7; where at age 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year old, and at age 20, she had the innocence of a seven-year-old. In an article entitled, “Chayei Sarah: What Makes For a Successful Life?” Rabbi David Fohrman mentions a teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik, that discusses the different stages of the maturation and aging process, where our priorities and values change, and we begin to wrestle with the existential question of life, such as what do we stand for, what are the values we want to impart, what is our legacy, etc.

One way, the “ordinary way,” is to go through this process in a compartmentalized fashion; as we pass through each stage, we leave it behind. Like shutting a mental gate behind us, the attitude is, “that was then, and this is now” and we do not look back and embrace life with a sense of wholeness. And so what Sarah did was “extraordinary,” in that she took with her all of the exuberance and enthusiasm of her youth into her adult years, and by infusing and integrating the past into her present, she continued to build a congruent life at every stage, crafting a lifetime of experience and dimension

Unlike most people who disdain the innocence of youth as childish and immature, Sarah never lost the quality of being open, curious and filled with wonder, even as she transitioned into adulthood, and beyond. Jewish tradition teaches that when God spoke to Abraham and directed him with the famous command, “Lech Lecha,” to leave his home and all of the trappings of comfort and success and to go forth into the wilderness, Abraham didn’t exactly hop to it right away. Instead, he came home and asked Sarah (who was 65 years old at the time) what they should do, and it was Sarah who said, in effect, “Are you kidding? What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” As she went through the successive phases of life, she fused all of her experiences together, each step being enriched by the previous one, in a seamless and harmonious integration. This quality allowed her to bring forth whichever aspect of her multitudinous self that would best serve the needs of her marriage, her mission, or the moment.

Carrying it Forward

There is a Jewish saying, that when a righteous person leaves this world, a new one comes into it. At the same time that Sarah died, hundreds of miles away, Rebecca was being born. Despite growing up in a culture of selfishness and dishonesty, Rebecca was the polar opposite. Like Abraham who rejected the social mores of his surroundings, Rebecca was an outlier, attracting the notice of Abraham’s servant, Eliezar, when she single-handedly drew jug after heavy jug of water to slake the thirst of the camels of a stranger. Rebecca’s virtues of sensitivity, kindness, and selfless service demonstrated the values that were to console a family mourning the loss of Sarah, made her a natural fit to be Isaac’s beloved wife for a lifetime, and positioned her to take a proactive role in furthering the spiritual mission of the Jewish people.

But like Sarah, Rebecca knew when to be what. The brave child, who didn’t hesitate for a moment to leave the house of her deceitful father, gave her the strength and wiles as a wife and mother to ensure that the Jewish spiritual legacy was placed in the right hands – even when her husband was too blind to see the truth. The measure of a good life is not in excising the painful or bad parts of your life, or to think of your life as separate and disconnected stages, but in allowing everything to serve. Good values certainly form the basis for good marriages, good relationships, and good lives; when we can live out the years of our life from the fullest of our whole being, however, it can be more than good – it can be extraordinary.

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Making Your Days Count

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When you waste a moment, you have killed it in a sense, squandering an irreplaceable opportunity. But when you use the moment properly, filling it with purpose and productivity, it lives on forever.          

the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Many years ago, a product came on the market called “Death Insurance.” The problem was that no one wanted to buy a “death insurance” policy. It was a huge flop – until someone had the bright idea to change the name from “Death Insurance” to “Life Insurance,” a much happier and more optimistic name (even though it was the same thing). That little change, however, turned that product from a dud into a gazillion-dollar business.

Chayei Sarah begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. “Chayei Sarah,” literally means, however, “the Life of Sarah.” So is this a switcheroo, a mere marketing gimmick to uplift us, or is it one of those paradoxical teaching moments?

The Talmud explains how those who are righteous, who fill their days in productive and positive ways, are considered alive when they are dead, while those who bring toxicity and negativity into this world are viewed as dead even while they are alive. So it is quite fitting, that following the death of Sarah, we focus on the meaning and influence of her life, who she was and what she accomplished, even though she is no longer living.

Sarah died at the age of 127, and rather than simply tell us that Sarah was 127 years old when she passed, the Torah describes her lifespan in a curious way: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” And so, a year is not a year is not a year. (Just think if two hours watching an engrossing show feels the same as two hours sitting through a boring lecture. In one case “time flies,” whereas in the other, “time stands still.”) Time is relative. It is defined more by its quality than its quantity.

Choosing Ultimate Reality

There is a mystical idea that our days on earth will ultimately comprise the garments that clothe our soul after we die. These garments are those of “thought,” “speech” and “action.” The quality of these garments will not be determined by the years of our life, but by the “life in our years.” In other words, we stitch together these holy garments from our good deeds, (our mitzvot), and the moments we create that we endow with the quality of ultimate meaning – and therefore – infinite reality. For example, someone could live to a ripe old age, and yet, sadly, have lived a life of such little significance and substance, that his or her soul could be naked or virtually naked in the next world. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Each day of our lives presents us with endless possibilities. We constantly stand at the crossroads of choice. How many times have I thought, “Sorry God, I have no time to pray. I am just so darn busy. Catch you later. Maybe tomorrow?” Thinking I am choosing “reality,” you know, “getting stuff done,” I fritter away many moments of time that at the end of the day, evaporate like smoke. It’s like consuming empty calorie junk food instead of nutrient-rich food filled with vitality. I think I am eating, but, nutritionally, I’m not. It’s OK once in a while, but I certainly wouldn’t make a habit of it.

On the other hand, when we consciously embrace our lives moment-by-moment, cognizant of the power and significance of our choices, mindfully aware of our words and deeds, we can weave together holy garments that will wrap us like a hallowed shawl.

Close Versus Connected

The Hebrew word for sacrifice, namely the sacrifices that were brought to the Holy Temple, is “korban.” The root of that word is “makarev” which means “to bring/come close.” Hence, we are to understand that the purpose of bringing a sacrifice is to come closer to God, and we have opportunities every single moment, to actively move towards where we want to be.

The holiest offering which was brought into the Temple, however, was the “ketoret,” the incense offering. The word itself means “to bond” or “to connect.” It represents the weaving together of different elements to form one unified entity that does not come undone. It is here that I recognize how I am inextricably linked and interconnected with God. While I do my part by “coming close” in my “thought,” “speech” and “action,” my soul is already there and bonded.

Leveraging Time

And in so doing – since the soul does not die – it’s as if we don’t truly die. Sarah physically died. That’s the truth. But the opposite was also true. As a woman whose life was alive with the fullness of her choices, Sarah also lived, as death only marked a new form of her life. Sarah embodies the idea that we must not merely count our days, but we must make our days count.  

So make the most of every moment. Make your moments holy. Make your moments endure by weaving into them a sacred reality. By understanding the infinite power and potential of each moment, you can stitch together the fabric of your life so that your spiritual loveliness will be there to embrace and clothe your eternal soul.   Happy weaving!