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What’s A Good Life?

The name of this week’s Torah reading is “The Life of Sarah.” And if we look at the life of our mother Sarah, we can understand something about life in general. 

This week’s Torah reading begins: “Vayihyu chayei Sarah meiah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim – shnei chayei Sarah (And Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years – the years of the life of Sarah.)” Since the passuk just stated, “And Sarah’s life was [such and such number of years]” why does it end with the seemingly redundant phrase “the years of the life of Sarah”? We already know that we’re talking about the years of the life of Sarah. The passuk already said so right in the beginning!

Rashi explains that the Torah repeats “the years of Sarah’s life” to teach us something extra. At the beginning, the passuk introduces what we’re counting – Sarah’s life. And what’s the count? One hundred years and twenty years and seven years. That’s the quantifiable data. But at the end, the Torah is making a statement about quality. After having enumerated the years of Sarah’s life, the Torah says, “the years of the life of Sarah” again to tell us something else, something about the quality of those years. As Rashi says, “Kulam shavin l’tovah – All [the years] were equal in goodness.”

But is this really possible? All of Sarah’s years were equal? There were no good years and bad years? No ups and downs? Was it all equal?

We know about her life. She started out as a girl in Ur Kasdim where her future husband Avraham was persecuted by the wicked king Nimrod for preaching against the idolatry of the day. Her father, Haran, was actually killed by Nimrod. Then, there was the whole period when they lived in Charan, where they brought many people to believe in Hashem. Then when she was sixty-five years old, instead of collecting social security, they were uprooted again and moved to the land of Canaan. But once they got there, there was a famine, and they had to leave. Then she was held captive for a night in Pharaoh’s palace. It seems like there were many ups and downs. So how can they all be equal in goodness?

The ninety years of childlessness wasn’t grueling? Becoming a mother at ninety wasn’t thrilling?

Also, what about the troubles she had with Hagar and her son, Yishmael, who became a dangerous influence in the home? And even at the end of her life, when she saw her beloved only child Yitzchak grow up to become a fine young man, she never saw him married off. Indeed, when she passed away, she was under the impression that he had died at the Akeida. 

How can one say that all her years were equally good? 

The answer is that the way we define a good life depends on the way we define a life.

They say there are two kinds of people – a thermometer and a thermostat. 

Just like a thermometer reflects the temperature in its environment, there are those who are reactive and influenced by what’s happening around them. So, when they say, “Life is good,” it really means, “I like the way I’m being treated right now.”

Then there are thermostats. Just like a thermostat regulates the temperature in its environment, there are people who get up in the morning, put their “setting” on gratitude and joy with a heartfelt “Modeh ani lifanecha,” and that’s it. No matter what happens, no matter how their day goes, they are on a mission. For them, “Life is good” means “I get to do good,” not “I am being treated well.” They’re not happy because they’re getting good service. They’re happy because they get to serve!

There was a chassid in Russia, Reb Mendel Futerfas, who spent many years in forced labor in Siberia. Being a political prisoner, Reb Mendel was often surrounded by artists, academics, and intellectuals, along with cutthroat criminals. In one of the gulags where he was held, there was a professor who couldn’t refrain from analyzing what was going on in the prison camp.

One time, there was a wave of deaths, and people were dropping like flies, not from malnutrition, disease, injury or exposure, but because they didn’t have the will to get up off of the bed. They would just lie there and die. The professor noticed this trend and asked Reb Mendel how it was that while many people were dying of hopelessness, Reb Mendel always seemed to keep his joie de vivre.

“I see that not only are you always bright and upbeat,” said the professor, “but you are inspiring others to carry on, saving their lives.”

Reb Mendel answered, “Ah, yes. It all depends on what you call ‘life.’ How do you define ‘life’?”

The professor was very interested. 

Reb Mendel continued, “If life means eating, drinking, creature comforts, having fun, then when you’re taken here, you’ve lost your life. But if life is serving Hashem, well, even here there is life. This just becomes part of it.”

Reb Mendel gave a simple example: “Every morning, we leave the barracks to work in the forests, and we return when it’s already dark. So I must daven Mincha in the Siberian forest where we chop wood. As I pray, I think to myself, ‘Nobody has ever davened Mincha at this spot since the world was created.’ This realization not only made my davening better than if I were ‘free,’ it improved my life better than if I were ‘free.’”

And that’s what it means that all of the years of Sarah’s life were equally good. Whether things were easy or things were hard, it made no difference. Whether there was pleasure or there was pain, it made no difference. Whether in the moments of open and revealed miracles and blessings, or in the dark hours, it made no difference. The life of Sarah, her divine mission and calling, never wavered. Every single moment was a moment of purpose. Kulam shavin l’tovah. All her days were good.

So ask yourself what kind of a life you are having. As conditions fluctuate around you, can you remain focused on your mission? Are you able to find meaning and purpose in the high moments as well as the low moments? That’s a life, and that’s called living.

Rabbi Shais Taub is scholar-in-residence at Chabad of the Five Towns and directs the Torah learning website SoulWords.org. He writes and lectures on Jewish spirituality and its application to our lives.

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