Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
What is a complete human lifetime, and what does it mean to live a full life? Parashat Haye Sarah takes on these deeply difficult questions by beginning and ending with death–two deaths that are as unequal as they are momentous in the history of the Jewish people.
The parashah begins: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” A midrash relates that upon hearing that Abraham had nearly slaughtered her son with a knife upon an altar to God, Sarah died suddenly and prematurely, “me’oto tza’ar–from that very pain.” The suffering of her son actually destroyed her own well-being.
In contrast, at the end of the parashah, Abraham dies a peaceful, natural death: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” Whereas Sarah dies in response to her son’s near sacrifice, Abraham lives long enough to witness his twin grandsons’ fifteenth birthdays.
Today, a person’s life expectancy can vary wildly, depending on where she was born. Japan and Hong Kong top the list at an average of 82.7 and 82.2 years, while Afghanistan and Zimbabwe bottom out at 43.6 and 43.4. People consistently die younger in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the Global South. This fact in itself is devastating. The unfulfilled potential of these lives—economic, social and cultural—cannot be measured.
The unnaturally low life expectancy in developing nations also violates the “right to life” included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. “Right to life” is an extraordinary expression, implying the right to one’s entire potential life, to die of natural causes in contented old age; in a manner of speaking, to avoid tza’ar–the kind of trauma that brought about Sarah’s early death. To realize this right requires us to address the whole range of human needs, from health care and clean water to economic opportunity and an end to armed conflicts.
Yet the meaning of a fulfilled, fulfilling life is not captured merely by longevity and the absence of suffering. It must also include emotional satisfaction, the living out of one’s values and the development of the spirit. Abraham’s contentedness is defined not merely by his wealth or years, but also by his ability to see his grandchildren and to rest in the embrace of his kin.
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