“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.