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Amid Israel’s war in Gaza, there is talk of drafting yeshivah students into the army to bolster its ranks. On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah, so I want to write about the role of Torah in war. The Torah is not just a dusty old book …

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Home » Chayei Sara, Life Is Beautiful

Chayei Sarah: The Good Life

Submitted by on October 27, 2018 – 10:34 pmNo Comment | 1,907 views

Our sages derived from the opening of this week’s Torah reading that Sarah lived a good life. The Torah says, “And the years of Sarah’s life were a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. The years of her life.” The last sentence is superfluous. Our sages taught that this verse teaches us that Sarah didn’t have good years and bad years. All the years of her life were equally good. She lived a good life.[1]

Can you say that you lived a good life, that you never experienced even one bad day? It is inevitable that we have bad days. It comes with the territory, bad days as well as good days, how can we say that Sarah, or anyone else for that matter, lived an entirely good life?

The question is even more poignant when we learn Sarah’s life story, like all life stories, was not all good. The day that Pharaoh took her hostage, was not a good day. The day that Abimelech took her hostage was a pretty bad day. Being childless for the first hundred years of her life was not enjoyable. Neither was learning that her husband nearly slaughtered her son.


The answer can be derived from another biblical episode. When Moses asked to see G-d, G-d replied, no man can see me and live, but you could gaze upon me from behind.[2] If G-d is incorporeal, He, per force, has no front or back. How then are we to make sense of this verse?

The Torah is a book of teaching that teaches us lessons for life. Each verse teaches us deep, profound, and moving lessons. The lesson in this verse is that when bad things happen to us, we often feel abandoned and complain to G-d. But when we look back in retrospect, we often find that the negative experiences were stepping stones to positive experiences. In retrospect everything turns out to be good.

Thus, said G-d to Moses, no man can look forward into the future and discern the mystery of my decisions. If you strive to see and understand my face, you will never be happy—you will not be able to live. But if you look at me from behind, if you look back in retrospect, you will often discern my hidden intentions and understand that it was all for the best.[3]


The happiest people are those who trust that G-d has their back even when they don’t see it. Even when the world seems bleak, and life feels like one long saga of suffering, the happiest people trust that there is a method to life’s madness. They can’t peer into G-d’s face, but they trust that it is shining with love. They trust that everything that seems bad, is really good. Such people live a good life.

After our ancestors experienced the splitting of the sea, they sang an ode to G-d. The Torah tells us that they believed in G-d and sang the ode.[4] One believes in something that one can’t see. If you can see it, you don’t need to believe it. When the Jews sang their ode, they had seen the miracle. Why does the Torah tell us that they believed in G-d and sang?

The Chassidic masters explained it like this. The Jews did not merit to sing the ode because they saw the miracle. They merited to sing the ode because they believed there would be a miracle. When they marched into the raging sea and the rising waters reached their nostrils, they didn’t waver. They continued to believe. Because they believed when they were still in the sea, they merited to emerge from the sea and sing.[5]

When we frame every negative experience in a positive light and trust that G-d has our back, we live a happy life. We live a good life because we don’t see any occurrence as bad. There are only two kinds of experiences. Those that we see as good and those that we believe are good. But both are equally good.

Sarah experienced many unhappy events in her life, but she never saw them as bad. To her, they were all good experiences that served as stepping stones to even better experiences. When she gave birth to her son and enjoyed the last thirty-seven years of her life,[6] she saw that her entire life was good. Until that point, she believed that she was living a good life. Now she could see that she had lived a good life.

This is why our sages wrote that when righteous people have happy experiences toward the end of their lives, their entire lives are happy.[7] Jacob had many terrible experiences, yet because he had seventeen good years at the end of his life, the Torah tell us that he lived a good life. This is not a euphemism. It is true. Jacob saw in his last seventeen years, what he had believed to be true his entire life. Namely, that everything in life was good.[8] Jacob learned this from his grandmother Sarah.[9]

Can You Sing?

Our sages taught that Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon, wanted to sing an ode to G-d, but an angel slapped him in the face and he stopped.[10]

A rabbi once explained that the angel was not trying to stop Nebuchadnezzar from praising G-d. On the contrary, everyone should praise G-d. The angel was trying to teach Nebuchadnezzar a lesson. When you sit in your palace, surrounded by wealth at the peak of your power, it is easy to sing G-d’s praises, but can you sing G-d’s praises after He slaps you around a little?

Sometimes G-d slaps us around. How do we respond, do we criticize Him or do we sing His praises? The answer to that question tells us whether we are happy—whether ours is a good life.

Let me close with a story. Two students visited Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli. They entered his home and saw that he was living in abject poverty. When he inquired about the reason for their visit, they explained that Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich had sent then to learn how to rejoice despite suffering. Rabbi Zushe replied, I wonder why the Rabbi sent you to me. I have never suffered.

With this one line, the students got what they had come for.

[1] Genesis 26:1. See Rashi ibid.

[2] Exodus 23:33.

[3] Letorah Velamo’adim, Genesis 26:1.

[4] Exodus 14:31. 15:1.

[5] Kedushas Levi ibid.

[6] The first word of this verse, vayihyu, has a numeric value of 37. Mishmeres Itamar.

[7] Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, chapter 5.

[8] Or Hachayim, Genesis 46:28.

[9] Mishmeres Itamar, Genesis 26:1.

[10] Sanhedrin 92b.

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