Chayei Sarah – October 30, 2021_5782
By Jacki Honig
525,600 minutes. 525,600 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year?
As a theatre kid of the early 2000s, Seasons of Love was an anthem of my teenage years and, If I’m being honest with you, the opening 5 notes still make my heart flutter happily. Depending on the version of Rent you see, the song appears in different places, but it generally always looks the same – the characters standing feet apart from each other on a blank stage, each in their own spotlight. Clearly sharing this moment together. Alone. Pondering the same question – a question that no matter where it appears in the show asks all of us the same thing
– how do you measure a year?
The song offers us a few options, which of course I always pondered as a teen. In cups of coffee, which I never drank, in laughter and strife, things I thought I knew well as a teen, maybe in bridges he burned – definitely something I felt as an angsty teen, or even the seemingly simplistic answer: daylights and sunsets. And then, as the title may suggest, the song seems to have a preferred answer to this question: love. Measure your life in love, it says. But then, in just one more line, one final answer that it gives us: the very name of the song itself: seasons. of. love. [BREATHE]
Right at the beginning of this week’s parsha, we see the closing of a season, the death of Sarah. The Torah recounts her life in an interesting and peculiar way:
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים
And it was, the life of Sarah, 100 years and 20 years and seven years.
Here, right in the beginning of our parsha, we see a division of seasons between life and death. In his commentary, Rashi offers us an explanation of the way it is written:
The reason the word שנה is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven.
He is delineating moments in her life that looked like what one would expect at another moment, in another season. There is more to it than this though.
As I have studied more and more Jewish text in rabbinical school, I have come to an odd conclusion: While I do love Torah and have always considered the Book of Esther my favorite, I find more and more love for and wisdom from a new-to-me book of Tanach: Ecclesiastes, Kohelet. While it often gets lamented, and it does open quite depressingly, any time I get to bring it to a teaching, it feels like a good day to me.
Wonderfully enough for me, and any other Kohelet enthusiasts out there, Bereshit Rabbah on the beginning of this week’s parsha opens with a verse from Kohelet and the discussion that ensues.
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ
…”The sun rises and goes down” (Ecclesiastes 1:5).
Rabbi Aba bar Kahana said: Don’t we know that the sun rises and goes down? Rather (this is what it means): When the Holy One of Blessing causes the sun of a righteous person to set, he causes the sun of his fellow to shine forth. The day that Rabbi Akiba died, our rabbi (Judah the Prince) was born and it was written about him “The sun rises and the sun goes down.”
The midrash continues on a genealogy of the rabbis, tells about Moshe and Joshua, and then finally comes to this week’s parsha:
” Before God causes the sun of Sarah to set, he causes the sun of Rivkah to shine forth. For first it says “Behold Malkah also bore children” (Gen 22:20) and after “and the life Sarah was one hundred years…” [PAUSE]
The life of Sarah could not end until a new sun rose, and it did so with Rivkah. At this moment, one season ends and another one begins.
In our individual lives, seasons end and seasons begin, too. It is easy for us to see the reason – and even feel gratitude- for the closing of a tough season in our lives. It can feel really great to leave a toxic workplace or end a romantic relationship that isn’t going where you hoped it would. For those seasons, we might not need these reminders, we might not need the faith that something comes next, because whatever happens after doesn’t matter – this season needs to end.
But for the good seasons in our lives, it’s harder to see why those have to end. For me, that season was my life in Detroit. I had moved there for work knowing absolutely no one. I had a tough first year. Then I finally hit my stride. I had taken an interim job and was absolutely thriving personally and professionally. I had a shul, I had friends, I had community, [read slowly] I had professional fulfilment that the likes of which I will be chasing the rest of my life. And at the end of that season, I picked up my life and closed the door on that chapter. It was the hardest move I’ve made in my life, and I’ve made a few, and closing that season of my life hurt a lot, and some days it still does.
BUT. little did I know that leaving that job would end up leading me here. The seeds were planted before I left, ultimately it was my Detroit community that was my biggest cheerleading force in getting here. The closing of that season made space for what was to come. Bigger and better. Onward and upward.
Seasons of Love, like the midrash, may have given us the answer all along. You don’t just measure your life in coffee, laughter, strife, or love. We have seasons of all of these things, some long, some short, some good, some bad, some happy, some sad and so on. Things come and things go, and even like Kohelet famously tells us, for everything there is a season. And that’s how we mark the passage of our lives, in the seasons we choose and the seasons that we experience.
This coming week we will bring in the month of Kislev, and [if today’s weather is an indication/if the weather ever actually changes] the winter, or at least what we have of it in LA. And my hope for all of us, my blessing for all of us, is that we are able to make peace with saying good-bye to the season we are leaving and have faith that something good is beginning for us in this new time and this new season. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ve already seen a little bit of it beginning in the last verse of the old season….