Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Do you spend your life or do you invest it?

Chaye Sarah

One of the causes of anxiety and depression is undoubtedly the feeling of having left your youth behind and having entered old age.

People spend billions on diets, creams and surgical interventions to try to delay the process or at least disguise its effects.

What can you do to not feel so bad when you think about the life that’s slipping through your fingers?

I will share today two tools that I found in this week’s reading, Chayei Sarah [1].  

The reading is called Chayei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah,” although it actually speaks of what happened after the passing of our matriarch, beginning with her husband Abraham’s mourning, his negotiation and acquisition of the family plot where she would we buried.

Isn’t it paradoxical to name a story about what happened after her death with the title “The Life of Sarah?

Here we have a great lesson: there is a difference between merely existing and living. “The righteous who are dead are considered to be alive,” say our sages [2], and “the wicked who are alive are considered to be dead.”

For a human being to be considered alive it is not enough to just exist, breathe, eat and have all biological functions operating optimally. These are the criteria for determining plant and animal life. What defines human life is the positive impact it has beyond its personal survival and benefit. The more positive impact it has, the more robust its life. There are individuals whose lives continue to have an impact way after their physical disappearance and there are lives that do not directly impact anyone but themselves.

When can we tell whether one really “lived” or simply “existed”? Often it becomes clear after he or she is physically gone. Who is affected by his or her disappearance? For whom is what he or she said and did in life still relevant? In the case of our matriarch Sarah, we were able to see the true impact of her life after her passing. Although she was no longer there physically, the bases and values that she established in life were still relevant. They did not end with her physical disappearance; quite to the contrary. It was after her passing that one could see that Sarah not only existed 127 years, but lived them to the fullest; that she breathed a vitality into them that transcended her bodily existence.

How does one live life in a way that continues on long after one is physically gone?

Perhaps one recipe can be learned from the way the Torah [3] describes the old age of Sarah’s husband, Abraham: “Abraham grew old, he entered into his days…”.

Our sages point out that the expression Ba baiamim, “he entered into his days”, can also be translated as “he came with his days”. The idea here is that when Abraham arrived at the ripe old age of one hundred and seventy-five, he was able to justify each day of his life and show the positive balance it left. Each day of his life fulfilled its purpose; there was not one extra, useless day in his life. There was not a single day that he did not live to the fullest. Avraham was not old, but aged.

Have you ever wondered why people celebrate their birthdays? What is the point of celebrating the passing of time, if every year that passes means that there is one year less to live? 

The answer is that every year that passes does not necessarily mean one year less; it can also mean an additional year. It depends on whether it was spent or invested. If you spend your life, if you live it with the primary purpose of seeing how much personal pleasure and benefit you can get out of it, then, yes, every day that passes is a day less than you have left to enjoy. However, if you choose to invest it, if you look for and take advantage of every opportunity to contribute something of value to improve the lives of others, then quite to the contrary, every day you live adds up, leaving an ever-growing legacy.

So, the life-tool for this week would be: the determination of whether your life is more than mere existence depends on you. Whether the day that passed is added or subtracted depends on what you chose to do with it. Did you use it just to get something personal and ephemeral out of it or were you able to coax something of true and lasting value out of it? Wrinkles come by themselves. They don’t depend on you. It is up to you whether they will represent that you are merely older or gracefully aged.

  1. Genesis 23:1 – 25:18.
  2. Talmud, Berachot 18a-b
  3. Genesis, 24:1
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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