We are all familiar with the phrase “circle of life.” I couldn’t help but think of this idea in relation to this week’s Torah portion, for life and death are intertwined. As Jews, we have a wide range of rituals to mark our various life cycle events, including ones for death and mourning.
I mention this because this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah, even though it is called “the life of Sarah.” The opening verses of the parsha say, “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba — now Hevron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”
With such an opening, why isn’t the Torah portion called, “The Death of Sarah?” Perhaps it’s because it’s the life of an individual, rather than the circumstances surrounding one’s death, that deserves our focus and attention.
While death and loss cause pain for the living, our rabbinic tradition offers a comforting perspective — one that suggests death is not the end — rather, just the end of one chapter of our life. In Pirke Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), we read, “This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come.” In other words, when we lose a loved one, he is not gone — rather, he lives on — just in another realm.
An American Jew, Colonel David Marcus, helped Israel defend herself during the 1948 War of Independence. A poem about a cargo ship sailingout to sea was found in his pocket he was killed in battle. It reads:
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
At that moment some one at my side says, “There! She’s gone.”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,
“Here, she comes!”
This poem captures the essence of what our Jewish tradition teaches about death: while one’s physical presence — the body — may no longer be visible, the essence of a person — the spirit of an individual, his values and teachings — remains intact and live on. In a manner of speaking, our deceased relatives are like the ship in the poem — no longer in view, but still there.
After Abraham mourns the loss of Sarah, he looks forward to the next generation and focuses his attention on the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham understands the circle of life, and he finds the strength and courage to move forward, and keep living. When we are faced with the loss of a loved one, may we, too, remember the circle of life. And may we find comfort in the image of the ship sailing across the ocean, being seen by those on the other side.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)