What is your legacy? What is your life story? How will your life be measured and your story told?
In the days, weeks, and months following the death of a close friend or relative, we spend time thinking about their life, examining their history and legacy. This is the time when we most often turn the question on ourselves. During rabbinical school, my teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson spent time with me talking about grief and death. I was taken aback when she asked: What is your legacy? What would your eulogy say?
I didn’t know what to say, mostly because my head was flooded with ideas. Would someone talk about my teaching? My path in life? My smile? What lessons would someone take away from my life? It was in that very moment that the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, started to make sense to me. Our Parshah is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, and yet the first thing we learn about is her death.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:
“The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.”
The first part of her eulogy is her age, how long she graced the earth with her presence. The various commentators expound on this with talk of her beauty and wisdom. And then, instead of a story about what she did or where she lived, the text moves on to the living, to what happens after she dies. Abraham mourns, he cries for her, and then he tries to find the perfect burial place he can for her. He will spare no expense to make sure that her final resting place is one of honor. The text then shifts to Isaac and Abraham’s quest to find a wife for him from his own people – a wife that would help him and someone that perhaps Sarah would have loved.
Abraham charges his servant to go back to his homeland, the land he and Sarah had journeyed from, to find Isaac a wife who was kind and caring, compassionate and gentle. It is in this moment of the story that we see Sarah’s legacy unfold. Sarah’s life is not just the number of her years, but the legacy of her family. In Sarah’s eulogy, her life is summed up by what will live on long after she has died. Family, compassion, and a quiet, pioneering spirit.
The parshah tells us that Isaac sees Rebecca, marries her, and then loves her. And it is through this love that he found comfort after his mother’s death. Part of me wonders if the comfort Isaac found after his mother’s death stemmed from his sense that life would go on and he would be taken care of.
The Talmud teaches in tractate Sanhedrin that when one saves a life, it is as though they have saved an entire world, and one who destroys one life destroys an entire world. When you think about the people who are closest to you and what they mean to you, this philosophy makes complete sense. One life can be your whole world. We often talk about the small worlds that form in our individual communities; each loved one gives us a reason to go on, to continue to find meaning in our lives. When someone dies, it feels as if we lose a world, but Parshat Chayei Sarah reminds us to allow their story and their legacy to live on by sharing, loving, and learning.
A life – and a world – survives through the stories told about it. Our parshah this week urges us to tell our own stories and to listen to others. Our years are only the beginning; they bring us wisdom, but our values are what we will be remembered by. Embrace the challenge this week to tell a piece of your story, and together as a Jewish people we will continue to live out the legacy that began with the life of Sarah.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Books like “The Help,” “Kitchen House,” and “Rashi’s Daughters” all tell the story of the past and allow the legacy of truly incredible people to live on. Your story might not become a best-seller like those mentioned above, but years down the road, your family will treasure it more than any other book.