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Torah with Morrie #19: The Completion of Life

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

It isn't the physical life itself that makes the difference; it is the legacy.

No human being has ever lived without dying, yet somehow we are all able to live our lives pretending that we will live forever.

The thought of death is frightening. We enjoy life. This is why the most common Jewish drink toast is "L'Chaim," --To Life. As the Mishna says, "We die against our will" (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:29). This is why we put death out of our minds for as long as possible.

"We are so afraid of (even) the sight of death... As soon as someone dies in the hospital, they pull the sheets up over their head...They can't wait to get it out of sight. People act as if death is contagious... It's not contagious, you know. Death is as natural as life. It's part of the deal we made (by embracing life)... Last night I had a terrible spell. It went on for hours. And I really wasn't sure I was going to make it. No breath. No end to the choking. At one point, I started to get dizzy... and then I felt a certain peace. I felt that I was ready to go... Mitch, it was a most incredible feeling. The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace....being ready to move on to whatever is next...That's what we're all looking for. A certain peace with the idea of dying." (Tuesdays with Morrie)

There is an amazing Torah insight which helps us develop this "certain peace with the idea of dying." The insight relates to one of the names of the weekly Torah portion.

Toward the middle of the book of Genesis, we find a portion named Chayai Sarah, which means "The Life of Sarah." With such a name, we'd expect the portion to describe the major events in our matriarch's life. Yet, the very first verse tells us that Sarah lived 127 years and expresses her tragic death, and the rest of the Torah portion does not mention any of the events of Sarah's life. What are we make to make of this?

The answer is that the actual events of Sarah's life may not be described but the Torah portion does tell us everything we need to know in order to appreciate what Sarah's life and legacy was. How so? Most of Chayai Sarah depicts in fine detail the process of finding a suitable wife for Sarah's son, Isaac. Everything we learn about Rebecca is designed to teach us what a wonderful woman she was in being able to carry on Sarah's legacy. Isaac's choice of Rebecca is an effort to maintain Sarah's impact upon the world.

As Rashi says:

"As long as Sarah was alive, a lamp burned in her tent from one Shabbat eve to the next, her dough was blessed, and a cloud of glory hung over her tent. When Sarah died, all of this stopped. But when Rebecca came, these three things returned" (Rashi on Genesis, 24:67).

The Torah is teaching us is that when we look at any person's life, it isn't the physical life itself that makes the difference; it is the legacy. It isn't the fact that the person is breathing, talking, walking, or eating. What the person bequeathed to the world in terms of true achievement is what is vital.

This voyage of life has as its mission to utilize every moment and infuse it with everlasting value.

We all begin life on a journey. This voyage has as its mission to utilize every moment and infuse it with everlasting value. By studying Torah, gaining wisdom, enriching and influencing others, connecting with God, and performing acts of kindness, we accomplish the purpose of our trek in this world. And when we build a lifetime of these accomplishments, our task is finished. Viewed this way, we can say that death is not the destruction of life; it is the completion of life.

Life in this world is not designed to last forever. We have a destination, we have goals to achieve and as the years fly by, hopefully we attain our objectives. After these accomplishments have been reached, our lives become complete at death. This is the kind of outlook we need to foster in order to fully accept the reality of death.

Everything that is born eventually dies. If we learn to make peace with the concept of dying, we'll then truly make peace with the idea of living meaningfully.

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