Sarah: What Makes For An Extraordinary Life?
What Sarah's Character Teaches Us About Living Our Best Life
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week’s parsha, we are told of the death of Sarah at age 127. Yet the Torah describes her age in an unusual way – it tells us Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years, and seven years old.
Rashi famously comments that this strange description of Sarah’s age is telling us something about her characteristics – that in some way when she was 100, it was like she was 20, and when she was 20, it was like she was seven. It sure sounds nice… but what does it mean??
How was Sarah like a 20-year-old, or a seven-year-old? And is there some lesson we can learn, some larger message we can take from this odd recounting of Sarah's life?
Rabbi Fohrman thinks that there is a lesson hidden here, a profound insight about how to live a successful life.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Chayei Sarah.
Have you ever met an elderly person, some really advanced in years, you looked at them and you said to yourself, “that's how I want to be when I get to be that age”?. Have you ever met that kind of person like that and sensed that you are in the presence of an extraordinary human being? I had a grandmother like that, she died a while ago but my wife would always comment about her, “that's how I want to be when I get to be her age”.
When you meet people like that, do you ever stand back and ask yourself, what makes them so extraordinary, what is it that they are doing right which is so hard to do? I’m going to say that it all boils down to something that appears in the very first verse of this week's parsha.
Studying the Midrash on Chayei Sarah: 127 Years of Age
This week's Parsha talks about the eulogy that Abraham gave for his wife Sarah. We don't know much about the eulogy, “vayoavo Avraham lispod leSarah v'livkotah”, we just know that Abraham gave one and cried for her but it's almost as if the Torah itself provides its eulogy for Sarah in the very first verse of the Parsha” “v’yehiyu chayei Sarah me’ah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim sh’nei chayei sarah”, this verse which talks about the 127 years of Sarah's life is the basis for one of the most famous comments of Rashi and all of Sefer Bereishit.
Rashi notices that the verse doesn't just say that Sarah died when she was 127 years old. It says that she was a 100 years, 20 years, and 7 years, and Rashi is bothered by the need to interpolate the word 'years' between each of these It breaks up the units.
What Does Sarah's Age Say About Her Character?
It’s 127 years but there's, like, three separate units, 100, 20 and 7, and Rashi argues that the meaning of this is that when she was 100 she was like 20, when she was 20 she was like 7. When she was 100, she was as guiltless from sin as if she was 20, when she was 20 she was as beautiful, as innocent looking, as if she was 7. What's Rashi getting at here? Is there a larger meaning here?
I heard an idea a long time ago quoted in the name of Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt”l and I want to share it with you. Part of being human means going through different stages in life.
When you are young, when you are a child, it is a stage of innocence, curiosity, exuberance, and when you become a teenager, adolescence, independence is prized. A little bit later in life, different priorities emerge naturally, you look to settle down and look to get married. A little bit later in life you start to raise your kids, you start wondering about your values, what exactly is it that I stand for, how do I want to educate my children?
Life comes with a lot of different stages. What makes for the extraordinary person?
The Life of Sarah: The Bible's Lesson for Being Extraordinary?
Well, you can say that there are two different ways of going through the stages of life. You can almost divide people into two kinds of people.
One way is to pass through them, to go through stage A and after you go through stage A, you leave stage A behind and enter stage B. As you go from stage B to stage C, you leave stage B behind. So you go to stage C. That's the ordinary way to go through life, but there's an extraordinary way to go through life--the way Sarah did it.
Studying the Characteristics of Sarah in the Bible
You take each stage with you and you build, but as you go towards 20, you don't exchange that innocence for a new stage in life. You keep that innocence and that exuberance, that curiosity, and you build on it.
As you become an adult, as you grow wise, as you accumulate life experience, you don't leave being a child behind. You bring the innocence, the exuberance, the curiosity of childhood along with you and integrate that into your life experience.
As you go to later stages of your life, as you ask yourself, “what's the impact that I am going to leave on the world?”-- instead of becoming obsessed with that question, you bring the innocence, the exuberance, the curiosity of childhood along with you. You bring the wisdom, the life experience, the definitions of principles that come from “how am I going to educate my kids?”, the questions that preoccupied me in my thirties, you bring that with you.
As you begin to embrace the questions of what impact I am going have on the world, my mid-life crisis, I fuse it all together and as I go towards the even later stages of life, when death starts to become real, that too doesn't fill my gaze as the only thing that preoccupies me.
Lessons from the Life of Sarah in the Bible
I don't leave the rest behind, I bring it all with me, and my experience at every stage is enriched for it, each stage in life strikes a different note, a different musical note, but when I strike one note at a time, that's ordinary, that's like playing the kind of xylophone that Fisher Price makes.
When I take one note and integrate it into another, you know what we call that? We call that harmony. That is the stuff out of what symphonies are made. That's what it means to live an extraordinary life.
The Meaning of Rashi's Commentary on Sarah's Character
When you are 20, you still have 7 and when you are 100, you still have 7 and 20, also. You’re 100 years, you’re 20 years, you’re 7 years, you’re all of it together. That's the eulogy that torah gives for Sarah.
And that, in the view of Rabbi Soloveitchik, is what Rashi means, when in just a few words, he expresses what makes her so extraordinary.