Whether you were a fan of the 1960’s band The Grateful Dead or a viewer of the horror show “The Walking Dead,” one thing is certain: Life does not end with the grave. And believe it or not, that is a hallowed principle of biblical tradition and Jewish mysticism.
This week’s parshah is titled Chayei Sarah, the “life” of Sarah. And yet, the commentaries question such a title when the reading deals primarily with the death of Sarah and her husband Abraham’s purchase of Hebron as a burial plot for her.
One famous Talmudic answer is that the righteous never die: “Even after their death, they are called alive.” One reason given is that when their children follow in their footsteps and continue to perpetuate their parents’ way of life and the values they lived by, this gives the deceased parents the gift of eternal life. Their message has not been forgotten. Their values and beliefs still resonate on earth as the next generations live by them. They are still teaching and inspiring us. This is the true meaning of eternity.
Sarah was the first matriarch of Israel, the mother of our nation. She was the first lady of the Jewish people, and her influence is still felt to this day, thousands of years later. She is always referred to as Sarah Imeinu, “Sarah our mother.” Her messages of modesty, morality, miracles and motherhood live on forever. Her prayers and piety were unique, and her level of prophecy was even greater than her husband Abraham’s.
It is interesting to note that in Jewish tradition, there are a variety of names used for a cemetery. Beit Hakvarot—literally, a “house of graves”—is one. Yes, a person dies, and the body is laid to rest. But there is also Beit Olam, the “house of eternity.” That’s because the neshama, the “soul,” never dies. Human beings are a composite of body and soul. While at the end of one’s life, the body is interred, the soul goes free and continues its spiritual existence up in heaven. A soul is a “part of G-d Above,” and, as such, is similarly infinite and immortal.
Then there is an even more powerful term used for a cemetery, and that is Beit Hachaim—the “house of life,” or of the ‘living.’ Not only is the soul not dead, it is very much alive.
Jews continue to do good deeds in the merit of the departed. Whether we recite Kaddish or give tzedakah, “charity,” in honor of our deceased loved ones, these acts are meaningful because we believe the soul, the essence of a human being, hasn’t died. Furthermore, we pray that our departed family members be “good advocates on High” interceding on behalf of their loved ones below. If we can, in fact, do for them and they can do for us, then our relationship has not been severed. It’s quite far from “dead and buried.” The terrible finality of death becomes somewhat less terrible when we realize that it isn’t entirely final because the soul lives on, and we can still connect in appropriate ways.
That’s one reason why we visit the graves of our loved ones and also the resting places of the righteous. They can still put in a good word for their family, followers and anyone who visits their gravesites. The Bible of Kabbalah, the holy Zohar, writes that “when the righteous depart, they are found in this world even more than in their lifetime.” And “the righteous shield the world after their death even more than during their lives on earth.”
On a more mundane level, I am reminded of the death some years ago of one of South Africa’s struggle stalwarts, Walter Sisulu, a colleague of Nelson Mandela. There was a whole host of events marking his passing, and his people kept referring to them as “celebrations.” Now, to my Jewish sensitivities, where we sit shiva, mourn and grieve over someone’s death, I just couldn’t relate to them using the word “celebration.”
That is, until one spokesperson stood up and explained that they were “celebrating his life.” Now that made more sense to me. I could relate to looking at his more than 90 years of dedication to his people and seeing his life’s work fulfilled as something worthy of celebration.
At the end of the day, there are people out there who are still breathing and very much physically alive, but because of their idle and meaningless meandering through life could well be described as “the walking dead.” While others, such as our revered matriarch Sarah, are alive and vital long after their death.
I just arrived in New York for the International Kinus Hashluchim, the annual conference of Chabad rabbis. There are thousands of emissaries around the world, the vast majority of whom never even met the Rebbe. They joined his spiritual army after he had left the world physically. Clearly, his spirit lives on and is still moving people immeasurably decades later.
Indeed, with the passing of Sarah, we came to realize how alive she was and is. So the title Chayei Sarah—the life of Sarah—is most befitting indeed.
May she be a good advocate and protector for her children today. We need her prayers now more than ever.