LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
The first verse of our parasha seems unnecessarily repetitive in its use of the word,‘years’: “And Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s lifetime.”(Bereishit 23:1)
Our major commentator, Rashi (d. 1105) makes an observation that, at first glance, strains credulity.
He says: The repetition of “the years of Sarah’s lifetime” teaches us that all were equally good.
How can Rashi say this? Surely, by any standard, Sarah lived a very difficult life. At age sixty-five, she was uprooted from her birthplace to travel to a distant land. Twice, she was kidnapped, by the Pharaoh and by the king of Gerar. She suffered domestic strife with her handmaid, Hagar. She was childless until the age of ninety. She endured almost all of her husband, Abraham’s trials, at his side. According to the Midrash, her death occurs as a result of shock, hearing the news that her son, Isaac, was nearly offered up as a sacrifice. By what measure, then, can Rashi claim that her years were all equally good?
Rabbi Dovid Hofstader points out that ‘good’ in Sarah’s context means successful in a spiritual sense. If, as a result of an experience, one becomes a better person, then one can look back at that experience as ‘good,’ even though one may not have chosen to go through it in the first place. There is no greater ‘good’ than perfecting the soul as a result of life’s challenges.
The Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, underwent unspeakable horrors in the Concentration Camps, yet emerged ready to teach the world how to learn from terrible experiences. He wrote, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
Nevertheless, not everyone has the capacity to respond in this way. The experience that strengthens one person can shatter another. As we saw during lockdown, quite apart from the challenges of illness, some people emerged with greater wisdom and empathy, and others felt that their lives had been stretched to breaking point. It depends on your background. It depends on your personality. Most of all, it depends on your hashkafa – your religious values. Our matriarch, Sarah, was a supreme example of someone who could respond, positively, to whatever life threw at her. The Midrash states that the poem, Eshet Chayil, a Woman of Valour, was composed by Abraham as a eulogy tribute to Sarah. She was woman of valour, a woman of strength whose remarkable resilience enabled her to live the good life and to rise up over every difficulty, such that it could be said, of the years of her life, all were equally good.