This week's parsha
Life After Death
It turns out that lots of people believe in life after death. Two polls conducted by The Gallup Organization report that 79% of Americans believe that after they die their souls will be judged and sent to heaven or to hell, and that 33% believe in ghosts. An Internet poll informs us that 38% of those responding believe in reincarnation (though only 26% think that they themselves will be accorded that privilege).
There's a mixed message in these surveys. While they express a certain optimism regarding continuity of our precious selfhood, they also imply that our present state of existence is doomed to obsolescence. We may live on as a basking or roasting soul, a spooky apparition, or the neighbor's cat; but at a certain point, common wisdom has it, life as we know it will come to an end.
Jewish tradition has a more encouraging scenario. While the Jewish concept of the hereafter includes heaven and hell (though a very different heaven and hell than the cloud-borne country clubs and the subterranean fire pits depicted in New Yorker cartoons), reincarnation and even dybbuks, its central feature is techiat hameitim, the vivification of the dead. Techiat hameitim states that in the messianic age our souls will be restored to our resurrected bodies. In other words, life as our own soul inhabiting our own body -- -- basically the life we know today -- will resume.
But the sages of the Talmud go even further than that, stating that there is a level on which life extends beyond death without interruption. "Moses did not die," they categorically state; "Our father Jacob did not die," despite the fact that "the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed, and the gravediggers buried." Lest one interpret these statements allegorically, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, the greatest of the biblical and talmudic commentators) explains, "He seemed to them as if dead, but in truth he was alive."
Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that life as we know it can indeed survive death; the question is only what sort of life is it that we know before death.
When do you feel most alive? What is life to you -- a good cup of coffee, the smell of baking bread, a stroll in the park on a sun-kissed day? Or is it the experience of seeing a project you've labored over for months finally come to fruition, or when struggling to explain something to your child the light of comprehension suddenly comes on in his eyes?Life's pleasures are many and varied, but they can be divided into two general categories: the satisfaction of a personal need or desire, or the achievement of a certain impact on the lives of others. The first category offers many gratifying moments; but nothing can equal the fulfillment that comes when you make a difference in others' lives, when the world becomes different -- better, smarter, holier -- because of something you've done.
The first category ceases with the interruption of physical life. Once you're dead and buried, there are no more strolls in the park. But your impact on the world continues. If you taught something to someone, that person is now teaching it to someone else. If you acted kindly to someone, that person still feels good about it, is a better person for it, and is acting more kindly to others. If you made the world a better place, that improvement is now being built upon to make the world an even better place.
So does "life as we know it" extend beyond death? That depends on what you know life as. If life, to you, is getting the most you can of its resources for yourself, you have a limited time in which to get as much as you can, and then the fat lady sings and the curtain falls. If life, to you, is making a difference in the lives of others, you're going to live forever.
The events recounted in the Torah section of Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) all take place after Sarah's death. Not only that -- they seem to all underscore the fact of her demise. First we read of Sarah's burial in the Machpeilah Cave in Hebron. Following that, we have the story of Rebecca's selection as a wife for Isaac and how she came to replace Sarah as the matriarch in Abraham's household. And then the Torah tells of the return of Hagar -- whom Sarah had banished from Abraham's home.
Yet Chayei Sarah means "the life of Sarah"! How is this to be reconciled with the concept that the name of a Torah portion expresses its essential theme and message?
Ostensibly, the events of Chayei Sarah emphasize that fact that Sarah is no more. In truth, however, there is no place in the Torah in which Sarah is more alive.
Together with Abraham, Sarah pioneered the Jewish settlement of the Land of Canaan; as described in the opening chapter of Chayei Sarah, her burial in the Cave of Machpeilah achieved the first actual Jewish ownership of a piece of land in the Holy Land. Sarah devoted her life to the creation of the first Jewish family; the story of Rebecca's selection demonstrates how Sarah's successor embodied the ideals upon which Sarah founded the Jewish home. Even the return of Hagar expresses the extent of Sarah's impact on Jewish history: Sarah's banishment of Hagar and Ishmael was to remove their threat to Isaac's integrity as Abraham's heir; the return of Hagar, as described in Chayei Sarah's closing verses, achieved exactly that -- it established Isaac as the torchbearer of the legacy of Abraham.
Thus the name Chayei Sarah expresses this Torah section's true import. Indeed, none of the earlier Torah sections that relate the events of Sarah's life before her death can merit the name "The Life of Sarah." These describe what, taken on its own, can be seen as a temporal life -- a life with a beginning and an end, a life confined to a particular body and a particular span of time. The true Chayei Sarah comes to light in the events following her death, when the eternity of her life is revealed.