Living You Teach, and Dying, You Also Teach

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of all of our beloved matriarchs.

The death of a mother is fundamental. For me, there is forever a rift in my heart now that my mother has passed into another, non-physical stage of existence. When I tore my shirt in keeping with the traditional understanding of the ritual of kriyah (literally: tearing), it felt right. It embodied on the outside what I was experiencing on the inside.

A mother is the person who brought you into the world. The person whose smell you never forget. The woman who literally fed you with her body and then with her hands. And the one who, once you were old enough to feed yourself, continued to sustain you with her wisdom. None of this implies that fathers are unimportant or even less important. Only that nothing and no one can replace a mother.

This week's parsha, Chayei Sarah, opens with a recollection of Sarah, the elemental matriarch of all Jews, who died at the age of 127.

The great commentator Rashi (10th century France) notes that the phraseology of the first verse is quite repetitive. The words "years" is mentioned twice (this odd repetition is easier to sense in Hebrew) when such a reiteration is clearly unnecessary. He explains that the word 'years' is repeated and without number to indicate they were all equally good, or an alternative translation, all equally for the good.

Imagine that! Each and every year of Sarah's life was equally good. Which is a pretty amazing contention since there were a lot of very difficult and heart-wrenching episodes in her life: She leaves her home/ family/ culture to follow Abraham to Canaan; she is unable to give birth to a child; she is passed off as Abraham's sister and taken into the Pharoah's harem; the same thing happens with another king called Avimelech; she gives her handmaiden to her husband so he can have a son; when that son threatens her own son Isaac, she orders Abraham to expel them from the household; then her husband hears G!D tell him to sacrifice this miracle boy on a mountaintop. OY!

When we review Sarah's life, it doesn't sound like every year was equally good, so what could Rashi have meant? I think Rashi was implying that in the end, Sarah was able to find the good in every year of her life.

It reminds me of one of the most poignant stories I have ever read, one found in a seminal book by Rabbi Harold M. Shulweis entitled For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith. On page 113, Shulweis relates a story that happened to him. A young mother in his congregation learned she would soon die of cancer and asked him for the meaning of her suffering and loss.

"...meaning for her is in raising her children to be strong, teaching them to face the challenge of adversity. Now that death is imminent, all meaning has disappeared. Her melancholy confirms Nietzsche's aphorism: 'He who has a 'why' to live can bear almost any 'how.' This mother has lost her 'why...' [but] she found meaning in teaching her children how to cope with life's challenges. I tell her: 'Your children know how sick you are. In your sickness you teach them lessons that will sustain them the rest of their lives. You teach them how to love, how to cling to appropriate faith. Living you teach and dying you also teach.'"

Living you teach, and dying you also teach.

We don't normally think about our death that way, but upon reflection, assuming death does not come suddenly and entirely unexpectedly, how we die --i.e., how we handle our sickness, our suffering, and our eventual demise-- does serve as a model that influences and teaches others.

Years ago, when it was determined that my mother’s cancer had returned and there were no further treatments possible, my own mother indeed taught me how to face death with enormous courage and fortitude. She lived for nearly a full year with a terminal diagnosis.

She refused other people's pity or melancholy. She rejected sadness and anger. She just kept doing what she loved- playing bridge with friends, swimming in her pool, going to the opera, attending book club meetings and Shabbat services. And as her condition worsened through June and early July, she accepted each new change grudgingly, but with little drama or bitterness.

When my mother found out that my aunt and uncle and their two adult children were going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa using frequent flyer miles, and that they were planning to cancel the trip in order to be home for her funeral, she realized (quote unquote) she wasn't dying quickly enough. So she decided to stop eating and drinking. We all tried to persuade her otherwise, but her mind was made up, and if you knew my mother, you would have been sure that "Iron Will" was her middle name.

To my mother, this was a practical decision that would help her family, and that was a value around which she had lived her entire life. For three days, she would only allow us to put a little ice on her lips to keep them from drying out. The entire time she was lucid, and oddly enough, happy. At no time was she afraid. 

Death was just another step on her life's journey- nothing more and nothing less.

Of course, my mother was not young in years, nor did she have small children when she died. And yet, just as she taught me how to live, my mother also taught me how to handle the loss of life with grace and dignity, love and a certain, quiet joy. And as sad as her death was and still is, I will be forever grateful that she continued to teach me life lessons until her last breath.

I imagine that Sarah was like that- a strong woman, a woman of inner and outer power, an Eishet Hayil [Woman of Valor]. In her living, she surely taught, but also in her dying.

Abraham sought to honor her with a fine burial place, but his most important tribute was finding a wife for his son, a woman who would, on the one hand, comfort his son, and also one who would perpetuate Sarah's memory

What gave me the most comfort after my mother died? The notion that I bear the values, the spirit, the kindness, and the love of my mother in me, and all those she touched.

The essence of who she is hasn't disappeared; it has only changed where it resides.

We are teaching others all the time. So it rings true to me that in our living and in our dying, we teach. All we can pray for is that what we teach should be worthy lessons for those we leave behind.

Zacher Tzadikot Livracha -
May the Memory of Our 
Righteous Mothers Be a Blessing

Shabbat Shalom


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