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Parshas Chayei Sarah - The Proper Perspective

By: Rav Dov Lipman

Sarah dies in the beginning of this week’s Parsha.  The Torah prefaces the statement regarding her death by saying:

"And they were the days of Sarah, 100 hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life." 

The wording of this verse requires explanation.  Why doesn’t the Torah come straight out and say that Sarah was "127 years old?"  Also, why does it state the seemingly superfluous words, "the years of Sarah’s life" at the end of the verse?

Rashi quotes the teaching of the Midrash that the manner in which her years are listed teaches that at 100 years of age she was as clean of sin as a 20 year old and at 20 years her beauty was unblemished as that of a 7 year old. 

Rav Hirsch builds upon the approach of this teaching of our sages and explains:

"These three numbers represent to us the three periods in the development of a human life: the age of childhood, mature youth, completed old age…a spiritually and morally perfected life could not be better expressed than: as an old man he was old, as a man a man, as a child, a child."

According to Rav Hirsch we are not being told any particulars about these specific stages but that, in general, Sarah lived her life to the fullest at each of these stages.  This does convey a powerful message about the need to acknowledge these various stages of life and to make sure that we grow and mature as we move from one stage to the next.   

Rashi then explains that the additional words "the years of Sarah’s life" teach that "all of her years were equal in goodness."  Rav Hirsch, once again, seems to echo Rashi’s theme and explains on the first part of the verse:

"All these years are called ‘Sarah’s life,’ she lived in all of them, the whole of her hundred and twenty seven years existence was life, a lively cheerful, important, good life, no moment of it that she would have had to wish not to have been there."

The Ramban takes issue with Rashi’s interpretation of the verse.  He points to the fact that this breakdown of years is used elsewhere regarding the deaths of Avraham (see 25:7) and Yishmael (25:17).  We know that Yishmael did not live a complete life so this cannot be the meaning of these words.  Rather, the Ramban says, this is simply the "way of the language" used by the Torah to describe a person’s death.  As for the teaching of our Sages regarding the fullness of Sarah’s life at each stage, the Ramban infers that they learned this from the concluding words, "the years of Sarah’s life."  

The Ramban’s question on Rashi regarding Yishmael is certainly a strong one.  On the other hand, if there are only three places in the Torah where this terminology is used to describe someone’s death, it is a bit difficult to simply say that this is "the way of the language."  We will search for an approach which attributes significance to the breakdown of years which could apply to Avraham and Yishmael as well.

The Ohr Hachayim takes note of the Parsha’s opening word, "Vayihiyu," which means "And they were."  Why is this term used to describe the death of Sarah instead of the usual "Vayechi" "and he/she lived" – which we find throughout the Torah?

His answer to this question is based on two teachings of our Sages.  We are taught that the word "Vayehi""and it was" – often introduces a story of suffering.  Why would Sarah’s death be described as one of suffering?  The Ohr Hachayim points to the Midrash Tanchuma which teaches that Sarah did not die simply of old age but, rather, her death was the result of  shock over the news that Avraham went to Jerusalem to kill Yitzchak.  Thus, her passing had an element of tragedy and suffering beyond a normal death due to old age.  (The Ohr Hachayim then suggests two different perspectives regarding how to understand the nature of this untimely death and he uses the seemingly superfluous words, "the years of Sarah’s life," to enhance our understanding of these perspectives.  His approach introduces some difficult philosophical issues which cannot be dealt with properly in this essay.)

The Ohr Hachayim then goes on to explain the breaking up of the year groups in the verse.  He connects this to his understanding that "Vayihiyu" connotes something sad and negative.  The first 100 years of Sarah’s life were not happy ones as captured by the number 100 connected to the beginning of the verse near the "Vayihiyu."  For the first 90 years of her life Sarah was barren.  There is no greater suffering for a woman. Sarah must have been unhappy.  Then, after finally being blessed with a child at age ninety, she was forced to confront and contend with Yishmael’s negative impact on Yitzchak.  Finally, after reaching the age of 100, Yishmael was sent away and Sarah could enjoy the last 27 years of her life.  The verse describes this by connecting the twenty and the seven to the words "the years of Sarah’s life."  Those last twenty seven years are when she truly lived.  Thus, according to the Ohr Hachayim, the verse should be understood as follows: "And Sarah lived 100 sad years followed by 27 good years which were the real years of her life when she found happiness."  This is a completely different approach from Rashi’s which described how every single one of her years was good.

This understanding of the Ohr Hachayim certainly reads beautifully in the verse.  It is also an approach which does not contradict the use of the breakdown of years for Avraham and Yishmael since there the word "Vayihiyu" is not used.  The explanation regarding "the years of Sarah’s life" is similarly understood in a clear way.  The one problem is that this approach leaves one with a sour feeling.  Sarah Immeinu’s life was that sad and miserable?  What message are we supposed to take from this? 

We can utilize a comment by Rav Hirsch to answer this question.  He explains that the words "the years of Sarah’s life" connote that the years of Sarah’s life described in this verse were just "years out of the life of Sarah, only one period, only one part of her life, for life is not measured by the span of time which is given to us to live here…"   Rav Hirsch then quotes the well known teaching that righteous people continue to grow closer to G-d after their deaths as a result of their lifetime of achievement on this Earth. 

Thus, using Rav Hirsch’s approach to the last words of the verse in conjunction with the Ohr Hachayim’s understanding of the first words in the verse, there is a very important message in this opening verse of the Parsha.  Sarah lived a very difficult life as captured by the "Vayihiyu."  The first 100 years of her life were full of sorrow.  She managed to experience 27 years of peace and calm immediately prior to her tragic, and possibly untimely, death.  But Sarah Immeinu persevered.  She kept on going despite everything that was thrown her way.  Why?  "The years of Sarah’s life" - She understood that our lives on this world are just one small section of the story and through our serving G-d on this world, wonderful things await us.  May all of us be blessed to internalize this insight and perspective and to live our lives based on Sarah’s example.