Parshas Chayei Sara (5773)
This week’s Torah portion, Parshas Chayei Sarah, begins with the verse: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years - shnei chayei Sarah - the years of Sarah’s life” (see Genesis 23:1).
Virtually all the Bible commentators point out that the last three words of the verse – “shnei chayei Sarah” - seem redundant and repetitious.
The truth is that there is a great lesson for life to be learned from this enigmatic verse if we read these three words with an alternate translation. Instead of understanding shnei chayei Sarah to mean “the years of Sarah’s life” (in which case shnei is a derivative of the Hebrew word shanah, which means “year”), we can translate the word shnei as “two” or “double” (from the Hebrew word shnayim, which means the number two), so that shnei chayei Sarah would then mean the “two lives of Sarah”.
Now this does not mean to suggest that Sarah led a “double” life, G-d forbid. It’s not like she was Sarah when Abraham was around but when in Babylon she went by the name Barbara, or something like that.
Rather, what the Torah is teaching us here is that all of us, like our matriarch Sarah before us, should strive to lead not one, but two, lives simultaneously – a physical life in which we try to keep our bodies healthy and strong as we work to provide ourselves all the material pleasures that we need and want, and a spiritual life in which we cater to the needs of our divine soul by studying Torah, observing the commandments, and refining our character traits, as we seek to grow ever closer to G-d, our Father in heaven.
For all of Sarah’s 127 years on this planet, she lived both of her lives to the max. Even as she took care of all of her physical and material needs throughout her long life (as well as the needs of her husband and child), she made sure never to neglect the less tangible but more important part of who she was, her divine neshamah, constantly nourishing it with Torah and good deeds, and using it to bring others closer to G-d along with her.
Of course, it is very difficult to lead two lives if you only believe in one. If a person doesn’t believe in G-d, the soul, ultimate meaning, etc., then they’ve only got one life to live and it’s all physical – and what kind of life is that?
Rabbi Kalman Rosenbaum, former principal of Torah Day School of Atlanta and a prince of a man, once shared with me a fantastic insight into the Hebrew word for life, chayim (which is spelled ches, yud, yud, mem). He said that if you take the middle two letters of the English word life, you get the word “if” – “if” there is a G-d, “if” I have a soul, “if” there is any meaning or purpose to my life, “if” I die tomorrow and am gone forever, etc. Life becomes just a bunch of “ifs” and that’s no life.
However, the two middle letters of the Hebrew word for life, chayim, spell yud yud which is one of G-d’s Holy Names. When someone has yud yud in his chayim – i.e. when he has G-d, meaning and purpose, in his life – then he’s got a life!!
The problem is that we are so busy and preoccupied throughout the week - and throughout our lives – with taking care of our physical needs and material desires that we tend to neglect or forget entirely our spiritual side.
This is where Shabbos comes in. Shabbos was given to us as a gift from G-d to ensure that once a week we put the brakes on our pursuit of material needs and focus on what’s most important in our lives. On Shabbos, we can spend time learning Torah and taking in all its amazing wisdom for living. On Shabbos we can take the time to reflect on the more significant things in life – our families, our spiritual needs, and our connection to G-d.
As the Midrash relates: “The Torah said to G-d: ‘Master of the Universe! When the Jews enter into the Land of Israel, this one will run to his vineyard and this one will run to his field, and what will happen with me?’ G-d responded: ‘I have a perfect match for you and its name is Shabbos, [a day] when people are off from work and can spend time with you’ ”.
So if we really want to live both our lives optimally, we would be wise to use the wonderful gift of Shabbos that G-d gave us.
I would like to conclude with a cute little story that I read in a wonderful book called The Magic of Shabbos by Rabbi Mordechai Rhine (published by Judaica Press):
A Jewish salesman was driving his car in the Deep South late on a Friday afternoon and it was getting close to sunset, so he began to look for a motel in which he could spend Shabbos. He always carried with him a little “Shabbos kit” complete with two candles, a Kiddush cup, grape juice, two challah rolls, and a piece of gefilte fish with horseradish – just for occasions like these. The sky was getting darker and darker and there was no motel – or even a mall or shopping center – in sight. In desperation, the Jewish fellow pulled into the only building he could find – the county jail. He asked the warden if he could just stay in the lobby for the next 25 hours to spend his Sabbath and would gladly pay for his stay. The warden told him that he could keep his money but that he could not stay in the lobby for the whole period but would have to go into one of the cells. Having no choice, the salesman entered the cell and hid in the corner, pulling out his candles to light them before Shabbos started. While he was munching on his challah roll, the inevitable happened. One of the hardened criminals in the cell who observed what he was doing, tapped the Jewish fellow on the shoulder and said, “Hey, you! What are you in for?” To which the Jew responded, “Shabbos!” “Shabbos?” said the criminal, “and what do you get for it?” “Life!” said the Jew.
So let’s all enjoy the Shabbos … and get a life!