“The years of the lives of Sarah” (Beresheet 23:1)
Upon returning home from the zenith of his spiritual career, the Akeidah — the Binding of Yitzchak — Avraham was confronted by yet another test of his faith. The Midrash relates that Satan came to Sarah and revealed to her that Avraham took her son to be offered as a human sacrifice. Upon hearing the news, Sarah’s soul left her body and Avraham was now burdened with the task of giving his wife a proper burial.
Earlier, he had discovered the cave where Adam and Chavah were buried and had decided that he would acquire it. Most commentators describe the negotiations between Avraham and Efron the Hitite, through the people called Bnei Chet, as one of his tests. Here in the land that Hashem promised to him as his heritage, he not only had no place to bury his mate, but he also was forced to negotiate with an unscrupulous, wicked character.
Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, reveals another way in which Avraham’s faith was tested. The verse gives the age of Sarah at her passing in an unnecessarily verbose fashion. “And the lives of Sarah were 100 years and 20 years and 7 years — the years of the lives of Sarah.” Why does the Torah add the phrase “the years of the lives of Sarah?”
When tragedy strikes, people start to talk. Many analyze and explain the event. When Sarah passed away suddenly after hearing the details of her husband’s trip with her son, many said: “Were it not for the shock of the Akeidah, she could have lived many more years. She was still young and healthy!” To negate this idea, the Torah testifies: “These were the years of her life.” This was the amount of time she was supposed to live as recorded in Heaven when she was born. The Akeidah did not cause her any harm.
This is a technique that the yetzer hara — one’s evil inclination — uses to deter mitzvah performance. He tries to convince us that performance of the good deed will cause a loss. It is difficult to defer his arguments because he fills one’s imagination with vivid images of the damage the mitzvah will cause. The verse comes to teach us that one does not ever lose out because of mitzvot. What was supposed to happen will happen.
The Chazon Ish was considered the Gadol Hador — the Torah giant of the generation — until his passing about 60 years ago. Once he was asked how he could dare involve himself in burying those who died in the streets during a highly contagious plague that ravaged his home town of Vilna.
“Of course I realize that there might be danger because I am coming into contact with dangerous, contagious organisms — but I am more fearful of the consequences that will result if I do not bury the dead as required by the Torah.” His decision was not based on personal judgment alone; it was an outgrowth of his perfect faith in the words of our Sages: “When a plague strikes, it can only harm those that fear it.” No doctor would believe it, but the Chazon Ish knew that he would not lose by doing a mitzvah.
A true story about a much simpler, everyday Jew shows us the other side of the coin. A learned, middle-aged Jew was working on an important business deal. He finally secured the appointment with the other party that would close the deal and yield the bottom-line profit. There was one problem. If he wanted to arrive at the meeting on time he would have to cancel half an hour of his regular learning time with his chavruta (learning partner). He decided to inform his learning partner that he had to cancel their regular session and proceeded to the agreed-upon time and place.
As he paced back and forth, glancing at his wristwatch every two minutes, his nerves were bombarded by thoughts of failure.
“Maybe he backed out.”
“Perhaps someone else got to him.”
“What is going to happen when the banks find out that the deal fell through and I will not show the profit projected in my statements?”
And then, at exactly the time he would have arrived had he not cancelled his learning, the other party walked in, apologizing for the delay caused by unusual traffic on the road.
The businessman would have spent valuable time learning and also would have avoided the nervous tension he had to suffer had he believed that it never pays to cancel set Torah learning. One never gains from bitul Torah.
Hashem tested our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in ways we could not survive in perfect faith. He also tests each and every one of us daily to assist our spiritual growth and to add to our reward in the World to Come. His tests are suited to our spiritual ability. We have what it takes to pass. One technique we should invoke and develop is to remember the verse: “The years of the lives of Sarah.” It is all predetermined. Doing what the Torah asks of us won’t hurt us. Mitzvot always yield blessing. Do them without fear — as the Chazon Ish did. And like the Chazon Ish, fear the consequences of NOT DOING what Hashem asks.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.