Melanie Levav
Melanie Levav
Founding executive director, Shomer Collective

These were the years of Sarah’s lives

Source: Shomer Collective

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, the years of our matriarch Sarah’s life are counted at the time of her death. Counting helps us to create meaning. It helps us to order things and to name them. Counting allows us to separate things and to keep track of them. Counting is how we mark time. On our birthdays, we count the years we’ve lived to date. Counting the years of our lives can put us in closer touch with our mortality, and facing death can give life greater meaning. The fact that Sarah is the only woman in Torah whose age is specified at the time of her death draws our attention to the counting of her years.

Thus was the life of Sarah: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; these were the years of Sarah’s lives. (Genesis 23:1)

This seems an odd way to count. Why not just say one-hundred twenty-seven? Separating each digit calls our attention to the place value of each number as part of the whole. In second grade math, we learn that the value of a digit is its place, or position, in the number. Counting places value on what is being counted. By marking her age at her death, the Torah places value on Sarah’s life.

In counting the years of Sarah’s life so unusually, ִHayyei Sarah provides us with a paradigm for how to talk about death; the act of counting our years imbues them with meaning. Rashi explains that the separation of the numbers 100 and 20 and 7 represent three distinct stages of Sarah’s life. A seven-year old is not like a 20-year old, and a 20-year old is certainly not like a centenarian. Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century rabbi of the Gerrer Hasidim known as the Sefat Emet, comments on the counting of Sarah’s life as a way to call our attention to the preciousness of time, noting that the holiness of time can be found in the potential it represents, and in the way we choose to use our time. This idea that time is made holy by the way we use it can help us to appreciate that our time is limited.

The fact that Sarah is not given more time in this world troubles the rabbis. Today, we might assume that by age 127, her body had simply had enough. But the Torah records the death of Abraham, also found in this week’s Torah portion at age 175, and next week, we read of the death of Isaac at 180! Thus the rabbis regard Sarah’s death as premature, and try valiantly to explain it, suggesting that she may have died from a broken heart after the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Yet attempts at explanation often fall short. Sometimes, death just is. Too often, the question of why, or why now, has no answer. Living with the unknown and unanswerable reminds us of our task to make our days count.

Immediately following the Torah’s counting the years of Sarah’s life, we read of Abraham busying himself with the tasks loved ones do upon learning of a death. Taking care of the business of death lifts up the sacredness of life. But this sacred task need not be limited to once a loved one has died. Anticipating the needs of our families in death as well as in life, we must talk openly, as Heschel said, about death and dying, in order to give our lives greater meaning.

Jewish wisdom gives us many examples to show how we must talk about death in order to embrace life. The students of Rabbi Eliezer, in a discussion of his statement in the Mishnah, “repent one day before your death,” ask, “but how does a person know when they will die?” For the rabbis of the Talmud, the answer to the question of when we will die is that death is inevitable and largely unpredictable, so today is the day to take care of what’s important.

Counting our days helps us to appreciate what we’ve had, and to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Counting our years while we are alive demands that we face our mortality wise-heartedly, talking openly about how we choose to live and how we wish to die. May we be blessed to count many years of our own lives, gaining wisdom as we number our precious days.

About the Author
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding Executive Director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan, a new initiative designed to empower individuals, families, and institutions to improve end-of-life experiences, inspired by Jewish wisdom. Melanie is a board-certified chaplain, a licensed social worker, and a rabbi with more than two decades of leadership experience in the American Jewish community.
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