parasha

Avraham Avinu’s Wonderful Death

Chayei Sarah 5781

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

As opposed to its name, this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah) does not actually talk about her life, but rather tells the story of her passing.

  Actually, the entire parasha deals with the deaths of Sarah and Abraham and the establishment of the next generation with the marriage of Isaac to Rebecca.  At the beginning of the parasha, we hear about the death of Sarah and about Abraham’s efforts to purchase Me’arat Hamachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron, to serve as a family burial complex for Sarah and him.  After this, we read about Abraham’s servant being sent to Aram Naharayim to search for a partner for Isaac, a search that ultimately ends with Rebecca being brought back to Abraham’s home and with the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.  As the parasha concludes, we read about Abraham’s final years, his parting from his sons, his death and his burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs where he had buried his wife Sarah.

Abraham’s death is described almost idyllically:

“And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people.

(Genesis 25, 8)

Abraham died satisfied! What was he satisfied with? We are familiar with the sense of satisfaction – a sense of fullness and of reaching a maximum level of energy.  Indeed, this is how the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a rabbinical authority, commentator, and mekubal, Spain 1194 – Israel 1270) describes Abraham’s death:

“This means he realized all the desires of his heart, and sated with all good things…that his soul was sated with days, and had no desire for his days to provide anything new for him…and this is the description of G-d’s kindness toward the righteous and of His benevolence to them.”

(Nachmanides on Genesis 25)

Abraham adopted a lifestyle that filled him spiritually.  He believed in his life, his deeds, and acted to implement the godly values he had discovered.  Abraham busied himself with acts of loving-kindness and welcoming guests; he made sure to spread the deep truths he stood for after many long years of examination; he wandered to a distant land where he planted his roots; he walked before G-d with innocence and faith. His life was full of faith and with the actions that stemmed from it.  When it came his time to pass from the world, he did not experience distress.  He died satisfied, pleased, and fulfilled.

The sages of the midrash added another layer to these words in an attempt to explain Abraham’s impressive death – if such a word can be used to describe a death:

“The Blessed be He shows the righteous while they are still in this world what will be the reward that will be given to them in the world to come, and their souls are satisfied and they sleep”

(Genesis Rabbah 62, 2)

The midrash describes death as sleep.  When life is full and satisfying, when there is harmony among one’s values, desires, and deeds, a moment comes when life ends and a person can look back satisfied and pleased, while also looking forward with faith to the reward in the next world.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who takes care of terminal patients during the last stages of their lives.  As part of her work, she conducted honest conversations with her patients and decided to document their last words in her book – The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  She describes five things that people regret when they are at the cusp of death: that they did not live a life true to themselves, but rather tried to answer to the expectations of others; that they worked too hard; that they did not express their feelings; that they did not keep in touch with friends; that they did not allow themselves to be happier.

Abraham represents the person who was true to his values, worked hard for lofty goals, was a loyal friend, and in short – a person who lived a gratifying life full of content.  Such a person feels satisfied when he is about to die.  He says to himself – I lived a life that was good and significant.  Now I can close my eyes with a sense of tranquility.

Last Shabbat, the Jewish nation parted from one of its best and most beloved leaders, Rabbi Professor Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  Rabbi Sacks was a role model as a person who filled his life with significant deeds.  He was a profound philosopher with an astute and penetrating understanding of the human soul and of human society.  He worked tirelessly deriving Torah wisdom and illuminating the entire world with it.  He was also a loyal and fundamental representative of the Jewish nation to the nations of the world and their leaders.  With his unique talents and fervent faith, he excelled at showing how Judaism calls upon all people to take responsibility for their lives and for repairing society and all of humanity. 

The untimely passing of Rabbi Sacks is a tremendous loss to the Jewish people.  Rabbi Sacks will continue to be a model of a person who dedicated his life to lofty purposes and successfully achieved his goals.

May his memory be a blessing.  

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