A lasting mark on life comes from spiritual, moral commitment

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1–25:18

I Kings 1:1-31

What is the measure of a human life? When we look back upon our accomp-

lishments, our achievements and the whole pattern of our life, what is of lasting value and what of only individual value?

I just turned 42 and realized I am approaching the point where I have more life already lived than yet to be lived. It’s a sobering moment, causing me to ask: What is the impact I will leave?

“And the life of Sarah was one hundred and seven and twenty years. These were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron” (Genesis 23:1-2). The rabbis ask, why the strange dating of Sarah’s life? Why not simply say she was 127?

Rashi (a French biblical commentator from the 1100s) teaches, “Just as a young person is innocent and free from sin, so also Sarah was free from sin even at one hundred.” Rashi continues to explain, “These are the years of Sarah’s life” means that all her years were filled equally with goodness.

There were many details of Sarah’s life that this brief eulogy omits. Sarah ended her life an extremely wealthy woman. Her grave cost Abraham something like $6.5 million dollars, which gives a sense of the vast wealth they possessed. Further, she was a prophet arguably greater even than Abraham, meaning she left an enormous spiritual legacy, as well, plus all the details of her skills and abilities, of which there is no record.

Yet the lasting message of Sarah’s life was her righteousness. She dedicated herself to God. She reached out to others to help them appreciate the new message of ethical monotheism and commitment to God’s law.

The source of Isaac’s consolation over the loss of his mother, Sarah, similarly teaches about the value of Sarah’s life. When Sarah dies, the light goes out from Isaac’s tent. There is no longer anyone to light candles on Shabbat. The warmth of family, the love and comfort that comes from closeness, has gone.

It is when Rebecca arrives that he is finally comforted. The Bible states that “Isaac took Rebecca as a wife and loved her. Then he was comforted for the loss of his mother.”

Our rabbis teach that Rebecca again brought the light of Shabbos candles into his tent. She restored the warmth and sense of family, even though she could never take Sarah’s place in Isaac’s heart. That is enough for Isaac to move past grief and return to life.

We can ask a question of our own. Why does the Bible first tell us, “These are the years of Sarah’s life,” and then immediately tell us of her death? For a person like Sarah, whose righteousness gave her life meaning, we can mourn her death, but we must celebrate her life. Her material commitments were substantial, but it was her moral and spiritual strength that gave her life meaning.

Often as we look at our own lives we regret our lack of accomplishments. We look at the passing of someone like Steve Jobs and we say: I will never be Steve Jobs. Or we see the success of others and compare ourselves, questioning our own impact on the world since we lack a Nobel Prize or haven’t made our first million, let alone billion. Yet even such amazing accomplishments are only one way of measuring our impact.

It’s easy to imbibe the usual measures for the value of our lives. How much money do we make? How many headlines do we grab? Yet Sarah’s life suggests a different rubric. How many people have we shown love? What values and commitments have we shared with others and brought into the world?

I was recently at a funeral for a beloved member of my community. In speaking with one of the bereaved, I heard the following eulogy, toward which I also aspire:

“I learned so much from him. I miss him. He’s everywhere I turn, everywhere in this house. But knowing that also makes me happy. Because he really loved me and helped me and taught me and supported me. As much as I miss him, I still hear his voice helping me, guiding me and loving me.”

That’s real impact. That’s a lasting mark that matters.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].