Parshat Chayei Sarah | How do we deal with the temporary nature of life in this world?



We are both residents of this world and strangers in it, because we are made up of body and soul. We come into this world only for a limited period of time – on a journey to the next. This reality defines how we approach our lives.


This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, deals with the end of an era — the passing of Sarah and Abraham. It forces us to confront the idea of death. What does the finite nature of life mean? There’s a very profound phrase in the parsha that encapsulates the paradox and duality of the human condition. When Abraham is negotiating for a plot of land to bury his wife, Sarah, he says to the inhabitants with whom he is negotiating: “I am a stranger and a resident among you.”


The Sforno says that on a simple level, he is explaining the fact that he is an immigrant. He is a stranger, and yet he has come to settle, and therefore he wants to buy a burial plot for his wife. So the duality of “a stranger and a resident” refers to Abraham’s status in his relationship to the inhabitants of the land.


But there’s something else in the phrase, which the Dubna Maggid points out in his commentary. He says that “a stranger and a resident” refers to the duality of the human condition in this world. We are both residents of this world and strangers because we are made up of body and soul. We come into this world for only a limited period of time on a journey to the next. In this context, the Dubna Maggid quotes the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that says this world is compared to an entrance hall leading to the next world, prepare yourself in the entrance hall so that you can enter into olam haba. In a certain fundamental sense, we are just passing through this world — we are both strangers in this world and residents.


The implications of this approach are radical because it means there is nothing of permanence in this world. The Dubna Maggid refers to Parshat Behar, where it talks about the laws of how you can sell your portion of ancestral land in the Land of Israel, where G-d says: “...do not sell the land forever”. It may not be sold permanently “because the land belongs to Me”, says G-d, “because you are strangers and residents with Me”. Here we find that same expression, “a stranger and a resident”. The Midrash on this verse says that we are called strangers because we are only passing through, and it refers to the verse where King David says: “I am a stranger with You and a resident.”


There is another Midrash which refers to Jacob’s drawing close to death, quoting the words of King David, that “I am only passing through this world temporarily”, and then refers to another verse that compares our days to a passing shadow. The Midrash goes on to say that our days on this earth are not even like a shadow of a wall, which at least has some permanence, but like the shadow of a bird that flies overhead.


These sources all grapple with the problem of the human condition, that we are only here temporarily and yet we also have a sense of permanence. Rabbeinu Bechaye, in his introduction to this week’s parsha, compares it to someone who goes on a trip. When you are just passing through a particular village and it’s not your final destination, your whole attitude to your surroundings is completely different. If that is our approach to this world, we adopt a completely different outlook to who we are.


The dilemma and the paradox of the human condition is rooted in the fact that we are actually dual creatures; we are both physical and spiritual. All of G-d’s other creations are either one or the other. Animals are purely physical. Angels are purely spiritual. Our physical dimension links us to this world and our spiritual dimension links us to the world of the souls, of eternity.


The integration of these two components becomes our journey in life. We have to embrace both dimensions. This is a point made by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg in this week’s parsha. The parsha uses a very interesting phrase as it reflects on Sarah’s life: “Shenei chayei Sarah.” The commentators grapple with how to translate this. It literally reads as ‘the years of the life of Sarah’. Rav Mecklenberg translates this as “the two lives of Sarah”. The word “shenei” means two. Sarah lived both lives, meaning a life that’s both physical and spiritual.


We have to look after both dimensions of ourselves. We need to look after the physical part of who we are, our bodies, where we live, the physical infrastructure that makes up our lives, but we also need to look after our souls, do mitzvot, learn Torah, daven, help other people, do acts of kindness.


Rav Mecklenberg takes this further and says that we have to look after both in an integrated way. The Torah approach is not to compartmentalise our two dimensions. If one deals with the physical and spiritual separately, the physical remains animalistic. When we deal with matters of this material world, we need to do so in the context of our spiritual mission, connected to Torah and mitzvot. He says that the verse is referring to Sarah’s ability to integrate these two dimensions of her life.


We can only integrate the two when our perspective is clear. Our sages point out that G-d hides from us the fact that we are going to die. Even though we all know that we will one day leave this world, that awareness does not live at the forefront of our minds. This is an act of kindness on G-d’s part, so that we will be able to focus on what we need to do without slipping into despondency. Yet we have to be aware of it so that we can live a holistic life. The focus of our lives is to accumulate good deeds and mitzvot, and everything we have in the physical world is a means to that end, a currency to allow us to acquire good deeds.


If we live with this formula, not only are we guaranteed an eternal legacy in the next world, but also a deep sense of satisfaction in this world.


This emerges from a very beautiful phrase in this week’s parsha, which describes the passing of Abraham. It describes him as “old and satisfied”. What does this phrase “he was satisfied” mean? The Ramban says that ‘satisfied’ is the ultimate description of a righteous person. Someone who makes the focus of life the pursuit of the physical, will remain fundamentally unsatisfied. He quotes the Book of Kohelet, which was authored by King Solomon with Divine inspiration. As a king of tremendous power and wealth, King Solomon knew all about the material world, and he says: “A person who loves silver will never be satisfied with it.”The Midrash on this verse says that people do not leave this world with even half of their desires fulfilled. The Ramban says that Abraham’s satisfaction came from the fact that he had led a life of meaning and purpose, of righteousness. Rather than a life divorced from the physical, the spiritual, moral dimension of Torah and good deeds uplifts the physical and enables us to enjoy all dimensions of life. The Ramban, explaining the satisfaction of Abraham at the moment of death, refers to the Midrash, which says that at the moment of death, G-d shows the righteous the eternal reward that is waiting for them in the next world and they derive a deep sense of satisfaction; they realise that all of the efforts they have invested in their lives have been worthwhile because they have eternal value.


When we grasp and accept the paradox of the human condition, that we are both strangers and residents in this world, we can make peace with that duality. We can see with absolute clarity our mission and our purpose and that brings with it the deepest sense of satisfaction of a life well lived.

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