This week I learned of the death of a distant family member at the age of 100. Mike had known tragedy—losing his son as a teenager and his wife six month later. He served in World War II and witnessed the liberation of the death camps. Mike remarried later in life and continued to work as an electrician well into his 90s. He lived to see two of his three grandchildren married and to enjoy three great-grandchildren. Looking at photos of him from his long life, Mike’s smile radiates a deep love of life and contentment with his lot. Having witnessed the best and worst of humanity, Mike remained positive throughout his life and he died at peace, beloved by many.
How we approach the end of life has a lot to do with how we approach the middle. Some people are naturally gifted with a big heart, a warm personality, an optimistic view of life. Others have to work at it, learning to let go of fear and anxiety, discovering the gifts that are hidden in the everyday. We might ask ourselves, what kind of person do I want to be when I reach the end?
In this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, both Abraham and Sarah die. We have the first description of end of life in Torah. While earlier chapters of Torah tell how old people were when they died, from Adam who lived 930 years (Gen.5:5) to Methusaleh who lived 969 years (Gen. 5:27), the names and numbers read like a laundry list. Abraham and Sarah teach us how to age and how to die.
Chayei Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, begins by sharing some of the details: how old she was, where she died, and most importantly, how she was mourned. Sarah is the first person in the Torah to be buried and Abraham is the first to grieve a loss. We learn of the deep emotion that often accompanies grief, as Abraham weeps for her (Gen. 23:2). We read in detail how Abraham negotiates a plot of land in order to bury his beloved.
And then we read:
Abraham was now old, advanced in years,
And YHVH blessed Abraham in all things (bakol). (Gen 24:1)
Here we learn about Abraham’s own end of life process. Having lost Sarah, he plans for his final years and for the future of his son, Isaac. We are told that Abraham was blessed bakol. Did he really have everything? Did he feel that he had everything?
Abraham had been promised many blessings in his life. He was promised the Land of Canaan and descendants numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet most of these blessings were destined to take root in generations to come, not in Abraham’s lifetime. Could these be the blessings referred to here?
Several commentators speculate what this compact text might mean. Ibn Ezra explains simply that at the end of his life, Abraham had riches, honor and children, fulfilling all human desires. He had everything a person could ever desire.
Rashi suggests that the numerical equivalent of the word bakol (bet-kaf-lamed) is found in the word ben (bet-nun), meaning son. Both words equal 52 in gematria (Jewish numerology). Perhaps Abraham considered his son Isaac his greatest blessing. No matter what greatness we may achieve in our work or pursuit of our passions, talents or causes, our children are often all we could ever want.
Given that the story of seeking a wife for Isaac follows this passage, several commentators connect our verse to Isaac’s future prospects. Rashbam explains that bakol means that all the women in the world desired to marry Isaac, so Abraham had to take great care in helping him find the appropriate spouse. Parents never cease to be concerned for their children’s welfare.
When we count our blessings, we may start by naming the material blessings: good health, enough food, a safe place to live, children and grandchildren. Beyond that, what else could we ask for? If we have received wealth or honor, contributed to the world or achieved great heights, that is even more of a blessing than we can expect. Counting our blessings enables us to notice what we have. Indeed, the greatest blessing of all is to know that we are blessed.
Rabbi Yechiel Mechel halevi Epstein (1829-1908), the rabbi of Novogrudok, taught, “God blessed Abraham with the quality of “all,” of being content with whatever he had, and never feeling that he was lacking anything. This sounds like Perchik’s song in Fiddler on the Roof, “Now I have Everything.” What Abraham has is gratitude for everything.
Gratitude is an essential component of contentment. Abraham is able to weigh all of life’s tests and trials and still feel grateful. What happens when we feel we have everything? Jewish teaching urges us to bless, to give thanks and to share our bounty.
The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, adds another layer to Abraham’s gratitude. Levi Yitzchak understands this verse as “YHVH blessed Abraham with all (that is, the community) according to his intention and desire. All that Abraham desired was that all be blessed along with him.” In this case, Abraham sought to share his blessings with all, and not to keep them for himself alone.
In this way, Abraham fulfills one of the divine blessings promised to him in the earliest part of the Abraham story: “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen.12:3) Abraham’s ability to acknowledge his blessings and his deep desire to share his blessings brings him additional blessing!
At the end of our lives, what will we treasure most? Our wealth? Our accomplishments? Our wisdom? Our loved ones? How will we cultivate our appreciation so that we, too, can be blessed by all who know us, and be a blessing to them as well?