Chayeh Sarah, The Lifeeath of Sarah, is the name of an entire Parsha of Torah, yet the summary of her life span is captured in only two lines. “Sarah died….” we are told, written like a press release of the who and where, but without any mention as to from what. Rabbi Jose picks up a hint from the order of information, and says that Sarah “died from grief” thinking that her son Isaac had been sacrificed.*
Was Sarah alone in her suffering that was so debilitating that it took her life? Abraham came to mourn for Sarah says the Torah. From where? ask the rabbis, and again Rabbi Jose answers saying that Abraham came from Mount Moriah, where the binding of Isaac took place In the rabbi’s imagination, not only did Sarah’s grief drain her life, she endured it without her spouse and the father of her child. Perhaps, she was entirely alone.
I work with people who are dying, but in a world different from Sarah’s. Many of the people are dying from or have been confronted with life-threatening chronic diseases. Some fight off the disease’s debilitating effects for extended periods of time, and some go more quickly.
When being present to those who believed that their death was immanent, I witnessed their struggle with sadness about leaving family, friends, pets, their work, the things in life that they love to do and all the dreams that they may not have time to make come true. None of us really knows the time of our death or what we will be able to do within the time on earth left to us. That information is a secret known only to heaven.
Yet, one of the greatest lessons that many of these people have taught me is about using the prospect and process of dying as a doorway to the joy of renewed living. They use the greatest power that G!d gives to us, the power to be free, to be authentic to who they truly are at any one moment, to be true to their purposes in life as they understand them.
A story is told about a great Rabbi whose name was Reb Zusha. Surrounded by his students on his death bed, Reb Zusha wailed and sobbed with all the strength left to him. His students asked why he was so distraught and Reb Zusha replied that he was afraid of how he would be judged in The World To Come. His students replied that he was the most righteous soul they had ever known, like Moses in the Torah. Reb Zusha replied that he was not concerned that G!d would ask him why he was not more like Moses, but that G!d would ask him why he was not more like Zusha!
In the end, these precious souls teach me that it is not about power or wealth, or what you think you should be. Successful living, even when dying, is being who we really are to the best of our ability, receiving ourselves with compassion and acceptance, being vulnerable enough to let love from others in and opening our breaking hearts wide enough to be honest in our anger with the seeming unfairness of life and to the flow of love that need never stop running through us to others.
One more thing the sick and dying teach me is how important it is to not feel alone in our suffering. It seems that those who have faith in G!d seem to fare better through the dying process than those who have nothing beyond the grave to hold onto. As importantly, we need intimacy with another, one who cannot live, suffer, or die for us, but one who can be close and assure us that we are not alone.
And then I remember Sarah who died, and I want to know how and want to know if she was alone, and I cannot think of times much more terrible than dying from grief for a child and going through that pain alone.
We live in different times than Sarah. We have grief counseling and other therapeutic interventions for those stricken with unfathomable loss. We have access to programs that help us through the last of our days when we are in the throes of the process that leads to our death.
And more and more, we are confronted by chronic diseases that one day may be cause of our death.
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 90:12) How ancient and contemporary is this teaching!
Shalom for now,
*Midrash Rabbah on Chayye Sarah