Remembering the Day of Death
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
"Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and bewail her." (Genesis 23:2)
Rabbi Yitzhak Karo in his work, Toldos Yitzhak, explains that the account of Sarah's death is placed between Rivka's birth and Yitzhak's marriage to remind us that even on such joyous occasions as a birth or a wedding, one must still remember the day of death. It is the day of death which puts life in its proper perspective. Thus we break a glass at a wedding, in part, to temper our joy with a reminder of the fragility of life and our ultimate mortality (see Talmud – Brachot 31a and Tosafot ad loc.).
The Midrash interprets the verse, "And God saw that all that He had created was very good" (Genesis 1:31) - 'Good' refers to life; 'very good' to death. We remember our mortality in order not to love this world too much and forget our ultimate purpose (R' Yitzhak b. R' Shlomo on Pirkei Avos 3:1).
When one is confronted with the desire to sin, the Talmud (Brachot 5a) tells us, he should arouse his yetzer hatov to suppress his yetzer hara. If he is successful, fine; if not, he should learn Torah. If learning Torah is sufficient, fine; if not, he should recite the Shema. If this succeeds, fine; if not, he should remember the day of death.
From this Talmud we realize that focusing on our own mortality is not without its own dangers. Otherwise why not confront the yetzer hara initially with thoughts of death?
There are at least three ways that excessive concern with death can have negative results. When a person is suddenly confronted with his own mortality, a denial reaction may take place that manifests itself in irrational feelings of power and ability to overcome any threat. Secondly, awareness of one's mortality can also lead to despair or feelings that nothing in this world is of any meaning. Finally, thoughts of mortality can lead to feelings of total abandon and frenzied indulgence in physical pleasures - "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (Isaiah 22:13).
Each of the stages mentioned by the Talmud is designed to counteract these negative consequences of remembering one's mortality. The exhortation to exercise one's free will in overpowering the yetzer hara reminds us of our own limited control in this world "Everything is in God's hands except the fear of Heaven" (Brachot 33b). Recognition of this fact prevents delusions of mastery and power.
Studying Torah and God's commandments - the second stage recommended by the Talmud for combating the yetzer hara - reminds us of the value of this world as the arena for fulfilling God's will and earning eternal reward. We thereby counteract feelings of despair generated by remembering the day of death.
And finally, reading the Shema and accepting the yoke of Heaven restrains us from wallowing in earthly pleasures.
Once we have anticipated all the negative consequences, we can use the knowledge of our own mortality positively: to remind ourselves that time is limited, the stakes are high, and if not now, when. "Repent one day before your demise," the Sages advise us (Pirkei Avos 2:15). In other words, treat every day as if it were the last and live it with a sense of urgency and desire to secure one's eternal reward. Talmudei Rabbeinu Yona (to Brachot 25a) comment on the phrase, "We run and they run. We run to eternal life, and they run to ultimate destruction," as meaning that one must be constantly aware that he is running toward his final destiny and do all in his power now to acquire eternal reward.
Considered in this way, awareness of death can be an exhilarating incentive to realize the spiritual potential in every moment. That, said the Alter of Kelm, was why Rav Hamenuna Zuti entertained the guests at a wedding feast by singing, "Woe to us that we are dying; woe to us that we are dying" (Brachot 31a). This chant was not a dirge, but rather a joyous challenge to the new couple to enhance their true simcha.
When Rabbi Akiva saw his students dozing off during a lecture, he awoke them by asking, "What did Esther contemplate that caused her to rule 127 provinces? He answered that she had reflected on the life of Sarah, who lived 127 years" (Midrash - Berieshit Rabba 58:3). Sarah lived a full 127 years, each moment utilized to the fullest. Her life furnished Esther with the model she needed to reach her full potential. The same consideration, Rabbi Akiva implied to his students, should lead them to remain attentive and not slumber during their learning.
The Parsha recounting Sarah's death is called "Chayei Sarah" - the life of Sarah, to teach us that the awareness of death gives meaning and inspiration to life.