Why do the two Torah portions with “life” in their names actually open by focusing on death? In this week’s parashah “Chayei Sarah / Sarah’s life,” we are informed practically in one breath first that Sarah lived to be 127 and then of her death. (Gen. 23:1-2) In the portion “Va’yechi / and he lived,” we are told that Jacob lived for 140 years and immediately thereafter that his death was near. (Gen. 47:28-29)
So why seemingly signal that a portion is about life when in fact it starts with death? One possible answer is to teach us that the proper lens through which to view death is life. In other words, the Torah frames the deaths of Sarah and Yaakov in terms of how long they lived because, when people die, we are meant to focus our conversations about them not on their deaths – difficult though this may be, especially under tragic circumstances – but rather on the lives they lived.
Is it also possible that by viewing death through the lens of life we somehow breathe life into death? In other words, by giving death the name life, as these two Torah portions do, can we understand that in some way life continues after death?
In fact, certain halachot regarding how we care for the deceased seem to ask that we relate to them as though they are still alive. When tahara is done – ritual purification of a person for burial – the chevra kadisha (holy burial society) does not view the body of the deceased in an immodest way. The deceased is wrapped in a tallit with one of the fringes cut, so as not to be taunted by a commandment that can no longer be fulfilled. And even more than that, people around the deceased must keep their tzitzit – their fringes – tucked in and out of sight for the same reason.
It is customary to not leave the deceased alone between death and burial, and instead to constantly have shemirah – guarding – of the body. Those who are with the deceased, however, are not allowed to study Torah, again because this is something the deceased can no longer do. They also cannot, for the same reason, eat, drink or perform other commandments such as reciting prayers in front of the deceased.
Do we actually think that those who are dead still know what is happening around them? Of course not. What we do know is that those who physically are no longer alive continue to exist through those of us who are. By continuing to treat them as though they are aware, by continuing to be sensitive and empathic towards them, we are reminded of our responsibility to continue stewarding them through this world.
Rabbi Heschel, in an essay entitled “Death as Homecoming,” wrote: “There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum following individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination.”
In our remembrance prayer that opens with “God full of mercy / אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים,” we ask God to “bind her/his soul to the bond of life – יִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתָהּ/נִשְׁמָתוֹ.” (As an aside, it is interesting that the word צְרוֹר in Aramaic also is translated as “stone,” which can help explain why we place stones at gravesites, to symbolize this bond.) Those who have died remain intertwined with the life forces around them and in our lives, continuing to live through us. And while we pray for God to make this happen, in fact every person has the power – the responsibility even – to do so as well.
This responsibility can be felt and fulfilled for people we know well and even people we barely know, for those of us living simpler lives and those of greater stature, such as Rabbi Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zichronam livracha. May we continue to merit bringing to life the values and ideals of the many people we are blessed to have had in our lives.