What will they say when?
Parshat Chayei Sara, 23:1-25:18
Not to be morbid, but it is time for me to start thinking about what they might say at my funeral. Trust me, I have many years left (God willing), but it is still time to think.
I began thinking about this when I stood in front of a replica of the very simple mule-drawn wagon that carried Martin Luther King Jr. on his final march. I was in Atlanta, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site, and I was humbled by the simplicity of the wagon on which this leader of leaders journeyed. It was symbolic: like the simple carts sharecroppers would travel in in the southern fields; like the caravans that traveled to Washington, D.C., to demand civil rights. It was both simple and impressive at the same moment.
Standing inches from the wagon, I was filled with the echo of King’s funeral instructions:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell him not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want him to say.
“Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell him not to mention that I have 300 or 400 other awards — that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school.
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”
“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” (Genesis 23:1). This week’s portion opens with an even briefer eulogy for Sarah than what King requested. How short. How succinct. How King-esque — long before King came into our world. But even in its brevity, it is wordy. Rashi, the great medieval Torah questioner, asks, “Why repeat the word ‘years’ three times? Why not just say 127 years’?” Ah, the answer is so informative:
The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: When she was 100 years old, she was like a 20-year-old regarding sin. Just as a 20-year-old has not sinned, because she is not liable to punishment, so too when she was 100 years old, she was without sin. And when she was 20, she was like a 7-year-old with regard to beauty (Rashi on Genesis 23:1 based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah).
In the end for Sarah, it all goes back to the inner beauty of a 7-year-old.
In the end for King, it all goes back to being a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
I wonder: In the end for me, what will it all go back to? In the end for you, what will it all go back to?
Rabbi Ron Symons is senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.