Chaye Sarah: A Life of Goodness
This last Shabbat a man came into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven innocent people. There is a special kind of pain the arises in a house of prayer. The suffering seems that much more intense because these people feel like our people. This house of worship could be our house of worship. They came for rest and found violence. They came for peace on and found none.
I cannot help but think as we go into Shabbat that we, for the moment, should focus on the politics nor the shooter, but on the victims. Who were they? What did they stand for. Just two days ago (Tuesday) the first four funerals were held for the victims. They included:
- Jerry Rabinowitz, a doctor, who treated gay AIDS patients from the beginning of the epidemic. He was remembered for his eminent skill and humanity for all those who suffered at the hands of this terrible disease.
- Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers, who faced their personal challenges in life with the greatest of warmth and love. They relied on each other. They did everything together. They were the first faces worshipers at Tree Tree of Life synagogue saw every Shabbat morning.
- Daniel Stein, former president and leader of the community, remembered as a devoted grandfather, father, husband.
They were leaders, each in their own way. They were the mighty. They were beloved.
In this weeks Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, we also see the burial of a leader, our mother Sarah. The Torah portion opens, “And the life of Sarah was one years and twenty years and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.” In the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, or Rashi, he points out that the years of Sarah’s life are separated out in a strange formula. Instead of saying that she was one-hundred twenty-seven years old, the Torah separates her life into four sections. Rashi explains that each separation helps us understand that everything in Sarah’s life had merit. Each of the years of Sarah’s life is, “equated with goodness.” In other words, Sarah’s epitaph is related in such a way as to signal to us that we must remember the abundant goodness of her life.
We know, however, that her life was not easy. It was full of anxiety, pain and trial. She was pulled across the world at the whims of the men in her life. She was kidnapped. She was barren during her best child-bearing years. Her only child was taken from her, and as the Midrash teaches, her heart shattered when she found out what God wanted from the boy. She died scared and uncertain of the fate of her family. Yet, says Rashi, we should remember her for her goodness.
For me, the lesson is subtle but important. The goodness of a person is not based on the ease of their life or their death. It is not what we can take from the world, but what we can give to the world that truly matters. Sarah was a giver of love. She brought wanderers into her tent. She fed the hungry and clothed the naked. The rabbis teach us that based on her loving kindness the commandment to visit the sick is even more important that receiving the face of God.
When I reflect on the tragedy of this past week, I cannot help but think about the lives of these Jews. Their lives were not perfect by any means. They all struggled. But, it is not their death that I wish to remember them by, but their lives. How they chose to give to others. When they took away the pain of an insidious disease, or brought smiles to the faces of strangers. When they lead a congregation and a family. This is how we remember them. Life is remembered best when, as Rashi says, we equate their life with the goodness they bring to the world.
If we are to build a different kind of world – one based on love – then we must begin with finding goodness within ourselves and make that the foundation of our lives. For as the psalmist teaches, “A world of loving-kindness will be built.” The entire structure of the world can be built on the aspect of loving-kindness. And if this is so, the beginning of the world and the repair of world must begin equated and compared to the goodness we bring to it.
May their memories be for a blessing.