Chayei Sara – The Value of ‘Wasted’ Time
In Parshat Chayei Sara we read not only of the death of Sara but also of Abraham’s death. “And Sara’s lifetime was… the years of the life of Sara” (Genesis 23:1). “And these are the days of the year’s of Abraham’s life which he had lived…” (Genesis 25:7)
The verses repeat the word ‘life’ more than necessary. Whether or not this is the manner in which the Torah typically notes deaths is irrelevant. There is obviously something the Torah is telling us here with its emphasis on the ‘days of their lives.’
We have every reason to call Sara’s life a tragic life. She and Abraham wandered from place to place, encountering hostilities and challenges everywhere. She was abducted by the Pharaoh of Egypt when they sought refuge from the famine. She was again abducted by Avimelech, king of the Philistines in Gerar. She was childless until her old age, a burden which she bore with patience and grace. Her mistress, Hagar, attempted to usurp her place as wife of Abraham. She had to act against her nature and have Yishmael banished in order to protect her child from his influence. Finally, we can only imagine the stress she was under, having her child go through a near death experience. Yet, after all this, the Torah insinuates that she had a good life. Rashi comments on the first verse of the Parsha: “All the years of Sara were equally good.”
Abraham suffered through all the above trials alongside Sara. Abraham also faced difficult tests when he was much younger. His great search for truth took up at least the first four decades of his life. He faced tremendous opposition and persecution in his stand against paganism. After concluding his search, discovering the Almighty as we conceive of G-d today, Abraham was finally able to set aside his searching and devote his energies to serving G-d. When the Torah talks about Abraham’s full life, and the verse teaches that “Abraham died at a good old age, mature and content,” does the Torah include in this the years of Abraham’s search, those years during which Abraham had not yet discovered G-d? Shouldn’t we look at those first decades as wasted years? If Abraham devoted all of his time and energies to the service of G-d, seeing this as his raison d’etre, then surely he had only remorse for not having the knowledge of applying this from an earlier point in his life!
I once heard a lecture from Rabbi Yochanan Zwieg in the study hall of the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva. Rabbi Zwieg was addressing a room full of students of whom most were returnees to observant Jewish life. His message for them was to not dismiss the years of their past life as insignificant or wasted. The person Abraham became was the product and result of all of his experiences, including the beginning of his life. Every event, every trial and even every pagan exploration, was a building block in the character of Abraham. At its end, at the consummation of a lifetime, the Torah testifies that all of Abraham’s life was full, that there were no ‘wasted’ years in his life.
Sara’s life as well, as Rashi writes, was all good. This is not to say that Sara particularly enjoyed her abductions, or that she welcomed childlessness, but she understood that every moment of her life was for a purpose. Rabbi Zev Leff points out that Rashi’s words, translated literally, are that all her days were “equally for the good.” Sara recognized that all of it was part of a greater plan, a plan in which she was destined to play her part. From such a perspective every moment of life was satisfying to live.
It is very difficult to appreciate the value and benefit of suffering. It especially takes great character to recognize this in the darkest periods of trial. It is no small praise that Rashi notes that all of her days were equally for the good, that she recognized an ultimate purpose in everything, from the good to the better. This concept is affirmed later in the reading when the Torah testifies that Abraham died ‘mature and content.’ This intimates that he was content with everything, including the journey of his early life prior to discovering his life mission. Without it he would not be the same man at the end.