Parshas Chayei Sarah opens: וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. Our matriarch Sarah meets her demise at the ripe old age of 127, leaving Avraham and Yitzchak to mourn her. There is a tremendous amount of commentary on the inaugural pasuk of the Sedrah, especially when it comes to how the years of Sarah’s are each separately listed. Rashi comments on the last three words of the pasuk that of these 127 years, “kulan shavin letovah,” that all of them were equally good. The first time I encountered this interpretation of the prolific commentator, I was puzzled and read it again.
All of them equally good.
Let’s go over some of the things we learn about Sarah Imeinu in the few prakim that she is alive in the Torah. We first meet Sarah as Sarai, the wife of Avram, when they pick up their entire existence in Charan and relocate. The exact destination to where they are moving is still a mystery to them. Nevertheless, this sanctified voyage is commanded by God, and one could assume that, as such, Avraham and Sarah would not be met with any trials and tribulations on their trail.
As they travel along, they are met with a famine, something that we (thankfully) cannot comprehend today. Sarai is then taken captive into the harem of of Pharaoh while in Egypt looking for food. We next encounter Avraham and Sarah’s struggle to conceive, an experience of immense pain and disappointment. Her hurt is augmented as she gives her handmaid to her beloved husband to produce a child. As if on cue, Hagar quickly becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. She later watches as her husband rushes to greet guests and welcome them into their home. They tell her that she will be blessed with a child, and she laughs, a blessing she may have thought about or been given for years without coming to fruition. She is chastised for having laughed by the Almighty, although on some level, I can understand why she did. Miraculously, she does indeed become pregnant, and gives birth to a son. Yet, even then, she is still bothered by the presence of Hagar, and beseeches Avraham to send her and Yishmael away. Once they are banished, to top it all off, we have Akeidas Yitzchak, where the precious child that she had prayed and hoped for, the apple of her eye, was about to be slaughtered like a korban.
Hakol shavin letovah.
The years were equally good. To even the most novice reader, most of what we know of Sarah Imeinu’s existence is negative. She’s only around for a few parshios, and there is so much pain lying in the verses as they tell her tale. Reading about such events can evoke sympathy. Still, I can only imagine the agony she felt that we don’t know about. Armed with what we know from the psukim, how can Rashi possibly think that the years of Sarah were all considered good?
As I mulled over potential answers to this conundrum, I realized that I actually had an idea of just how it was possible. It’s an idea that was mentioned more eloquently in a shiur by Rabbi Shalom Rosner. He explains so poignantly that there are both high points and low points, but the hashkafa, the view that we employ on these events is crucial. There are times in our lives which are filled with sorrow. When looking back on these moments many years later, we may gloss over the exact feelings we exhibited previously, as the wounds are no longer fresh. The process of recognizing the blessing that our lives are endowed with even lends itself to the times when we may have been at our saddest or our lowest. True, those occasions are vividly raw, far from being considered good. Yet, at the end of one’s life when they look back at their days, more often than not, there is an abundance of good that shines through despite the heartache that exists.
I was fortunate that I had someone in my life that didn’t talk about living like this. Rather, this was the way that she lived her life. .
The Radman and Balk families would be the first to tell you, even before her doctors, that my mother did not always have the easiest life. She was afflicted with various illnesses for the majority of her time in olam hazeh. I rack my brain to try and remember her as she was in the times when she wasn’t sick. No matter what ailed her or kept her cooped up in the hospital, her spirit and attitude were the same as when she was out doing the things that she loved. The things that imbued her life, and the lives of those around her, with significant meaning. Her days were not always easy, but my mother’s simchas hachaim, her joie de vivre, made those around her feel as if there was nothing in the world that was bothering her. She may have been the one with an suppressed immune system, yet it was those around her who contracted her highly-contagious positivity and zest for life. Even in her final days.
There’s one particular time in my life when this missive of being able to reflect on the positive among the negative hit home in a way that it hadn’t before. It was a summer that I otherwise would’ve cared to forget, as my mother was in the midst of a months-long stint in her home away from home, the Cleveland Clinic. She was given a palatial private room that I was sure was only reserved for foreign royalty who required medical care. It was a corner room, where we’d watch the Life Flight helicopters take off and land, and see three different sets of fireworks on the Fourth of July. It was one of the hardest summers. Maybe for her, but definitely for me. Dena and I were both taking classes that summer, sharing the car and planning out our schedules to maximize our time with Mom. My mother’s excellent medical team was baffled as to why her blood levels were low, and why she needed so many blood transfusions. It was eventually determined that an enlarged spleen was the culprit. A regular spleen weighs about a pound. Hers was pushing 10 times the size of that. My mother was overjoyed that her doctors figured out what was wrong, not to mention the fact that that she’d be looking particularly svelt after her 10 lb. spleen would be extracted. During surgery to remove the organ, one of the doctors had accidentally nicked a bowel, a virtually undetected mishap. It was discovered days after the operation, only after my mother’s attentive nurse wondered why there were little pieces of food she had recently eaten in the output in a drain of incision site. She was relegated to a liquid diet, which she abhorred, until the issue was ultimately resolved. As I watched this all unfold, I felt as if I was even more angry than she was over the ordeal.
There was one particular day when it was just my mother and me in her room. She was most likely watching The Barefoot Contessa or What Not To Wear, while I was trying hard to not be overly frustrated about her television choices. I opened up to her about my frustration in regard to her medical situation and how this entire episode should’ve been avoided. She quickly and assertively told me that I shouldn’t think that way. I pressed further and noted that due to the mistake during surgery, she had the makings of a lawsuit against the doctors, one that could’ve likely been successful in her favor. Almost as quickly as I got the words out of my mouth, she shot my statements down. Very matter-of-factly, without raising her voice, she looked me dead in the eye and said: “Why would I do anything to them? They saved my life–I wouldn’t be here without them!” I’m not sure what followed in the immediate aftermath, but I assume she turned back to the TV or to her Kindle, while I was left completely quashed. That was that. This wasn’t a claim she made to merely pacify herself in her predicament, or even part of a facade that she employed when speaking to others. It’s truly how she felt, and it’s how she comported herself until she took her final breaths.
We will all undoubtedly face moments that stop us dead in our tracks with grief. Each and every one of us. As we reflect on our lives as we age, may we be zoche to look back and consider our years to have been equally good ones. That’s the message of Sarah Imeinu, and it’s a message, among a litany, that I learned from my mother. The bottom of her headstone is emblazoned with the end of a verse from Mishlei that is sung as part of Eishes Chayil. “Vatischak leyom acharon.” My mother was able to laugh and smile in her final time on earth because she could look back and recall her time here as explicitly good. That doesn’t mean for a moment that there were no setbacks or things she may have wished went differently. There were many. Despite them, she remained joyful to the end.
This year marks the 4th since she passed away. The 4 years of not being able to see her or have a conversation with her physically feel longer than the 24 that I was lucky to have the privilege to do that. As the 19th of Cheshvan comes and goes, I try this year to look back and consider the years without her as equally good as the ones that I spent with her. I’m not quite there yet.