My mother and I have had a tradition of visiting the cemetery. Together, we drive through the cemetery and visit our family. I have the role of navigator — although I have been fired from this position on more than one occasion — and my mother has the role of storyteller. Most of the graves we visit are of people that did not live to see me be born.
My mother and I have a routine at each grave that we visit. I search for a stone to leave behind and she trims the shrubbery. My mother trims in silence as she updates each person about what is happening in our lives. Inevitably, I finish first and as she continues to trim, I stare at the tombstones. I stare at the dates of my family members’ lives — but really I stare at the dashes between the years of their births and deaths. I wonder what their lifetimes were full of.
Then my mother steps back and says: “It looks better than before, right? Let’s go.” That is my invitation to begin asking her questions about each person — to find out what each person’s life was like. As we walk to the car and drive to the next stop on our visit, she tells me about the person’s life. And as we drive home together, we get lost in the family history and family stories — we get lost in all of the dashes of their lives.
This week in our Torah reading, parashat Hayyei Sarah, we are confronted with the gravestone of Sarah. In the opening verse of the parashah, we learn what the span of Sarah’s life was — the bookends of the dashes of her life. The text states that the lifetime of Sarah consisted of one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. Although it seems as though the text is merely reporting on the number of the years Sarah lived in her lifetime, there is much more being said in this one brief verse.
Rashi, in his Torah commentary, notes the repetition of the word year that breaks Sarah’s life into three parts, describing how Sarah was at different stages throughout her life. Rashi incorporates a midrash into his understanding of this verse in order to explain that the text comes to tell us about Sarah’s life, not her death. Thus, the opening verse of our Torah portion is not merely a reporting on Sarah’s age at her death, but rather, a telling of the life of Sarah. More to the point, a telling of what filled the dashes of Sarah’s life.
There were many stages of Sarah’s life, as noted by the midrash. At age one hundred Sarah was blameless in sin like a twenty year old. At age twenty her beauty was like that of a seven year old. These are the dashes in Sarah’s life.
At the end of Sarah’s life, Rashi notes that all of the years of Sarah’s life were good. Yet, life was not always easy or good for Sarah, as we know from previous parshyiot. We do not have to look too far back to recall that her only son was almost sacrificed by her husband. But, what was good was how Sarah lived her life, especially in the moments when things were not always so good. Throughout each phase of her life, Sarah lived with righteousness and dignity. In spite of the challenges and pain she faced, she lived her life well.
As my mother and I go from grave to grave and in and out of our family stories, I hear stories that define my family’s history. The stories are never about how great each person was or how great their lives were, but rather about how they survived in difficult times and ensured that there was a promising future for the next generation — for my mom, for me, and for my children — in a land of hopes and dreams. Most of the people that we visit at the cemetery have one thing in common—they were Holocaust survivors. They each have their story about how they survived Nazi Germany and came to America in search of a brighter future. Although the stories of how they survived are each different — one thing remained the same — no matter how bad it was, no matter how hard their lives had become, they maintained their dignity and lived with righteousness and goodness. They lived well —even during the most chaotic and difficult times. These are the dashes I stare at in the cemetery. These are the stories that define my family.
We all have various stages of our own lives. Some periods in our lives will be wonderful and some will be filled with struggle. We will have moments of great joy and moments of great heartbreak. We will have moments of wild success and moments of devastating defeat. Although we do not have control over the time-span of our life, we do have control over what fills our lives. As we go through the various phases of our lives we have the possibility of ensuring that our days are equally good — that our days are all well lived.