There’s an old Yiddish expression, in tachrichim iz nishto kein keshines, “Burial shrouds don’t have pockets.” In other words, you can’t take your stuff with you.

So what does come with us? The answer is found in the title of this week’s Torah portion.

Chayei Sarah means “the life of Sarah.” One would therefore assume that this portion is all about the life of Sarah. The second verse, however, talks about Sarah’s passing, and the rest of the portion discusses events that took place after her death. How could this portion be about the life of Sarah when we have 105 verses that talk about what happened after the life of Sarah?

In answering this classic question, we learn a profound life lesson: the life of a righteous person continues even after their physical passing.

Our sages tell us that wicked people, “even when they are alive, they are considered dead.” The wicked have no continuity, no eternity. Righteous people (t zaddikim), on the other hand, “even when they pass away, they are considered living.”1

The classic example of this teaching is, “David Melech Yisrael chai vekayam” – “David, King of Israel, is alive and well.” Yet we know, of course, that King David was buried thousands of years ago. Why, then, do we sing about him being alive and well? Because only his physical body was interred; his true essence, the “real” King David, remains alive and well, and we are waiting for Moshiach, a descendant of David, to lead us out of exile.

Another example of this teaching is our patriarch Jacob. The Talmud (quoted by Rashi) tells us, “Our patriarch Jacob did not die. Just as his children are living, he, too, is living.”2

Who Was Sarah?

Sarah was many things: a righteous woman, a prophetess, the wife of Abraham. But above all, Sarah was our matriarch. And not only that, she was our first matriarch. It was Sarah who brought about the fulfillment of G‑d’s promise that her son, Isaac, would carry forth Abraham’s legacy.3

“For I have known him,” says G‑d about Abraham, “because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the L‑rd to perform righteousness and justice.”4 As Rashi explains, “For I have known him” implies love. To know him is to love him. Why does G‑d love him? Because Abraham and Sarah established continuity for G‑d. And to this day we are called the children of Abraham and Sarah.

Life is not the pleasures we encounter; those are transient, passing. What is permanent in life are those things that live forever.

That’s why this portion is called Chayei Sarah, because it teaches us about what is real in life.

Transient vs. Eternal

There are two contrasting perspectives regarding reality:

One approach suggests that if something cannot be perceived with any of the five senses, then it does not exist. Only if you can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, then it is real.

The other perspective is that anything that can be perceived with the senses is temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. Only intangible experiences, it is argued, can represent eternity.

Seven-layer cake is delicious, but it’s not forever. An idea, a belief, a mathematical axiom – one plus one equals two – those are forever.

This explains why even the mightiest of governments have failed to eradicate certain ideals, values, and aspirations.

Chayei Sarah teaches us that the true “life of Sarah” lies in the good and the G‑dly aspects of life, or as we know it, in studying Torah, performing mitzvot, and living as a Jew. These are eternal realities.

Place of Life

According to Jewish law, a person must be buried when they pass. In Hebrew, there are three different expressions for the word “cemetery”:

  1. Beit hakevarot, meaning “place of graves.” Life is life, and death is death. When you die, it’s over.
  2. Beit olam, or “place of eternity.” Humankind was created from earth and returns to it. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”5 Although the body is interred in the ground, the soul, the true consciousness of the person, the essence of the person, especially a righteous person, lives on forever. That is why it is referred to as a “place of eternity.”
  3. B eit hachaim, the “place of life.” Now, that sounds strange! Why call a cemetery a place of life? One might think it’s facetious, but it’s not. The soul is eternal. The blessings that emanate from souls are eternal. A person spends 70, 80, 120 years – or in the case of Sarah, 127 years – and then the body is returned to the earth. But the soul remains alive; the real person continues to live.

    How? Firstly, by their accomplishments, their mitzvot, and their Torah study. And secondly, through their children, their grandchildren, and all their descendants until the end of time.

The Only True Friend

A poignant parable often comes to mind whenever I study this mishnah. It is about a man who was summoned by the king. Back then, if the king wanted to see you, it was never a good sign. Overwhelmed with fear, he sought solace from his three closest friends.

“Listen,” he said to his first friend, “I received a summons from the king. I’m terrified. Can you accompany me?” His friend immediately reassured him, “Of course I’ll come with you! I’m your friend. I will walk with you all the way to the capital city,” he said, “but that’s as far as I can go. I hope you understand.”

He made a similar request of the next friend. “Of course I’ll come with you,” the friend responded, “but I can only go until the palace gates. I hope you understand.”

Finally, he turned to his only remaining friend and implored, “You are my dearest friend. Will you come with me? I am so scared.” In a resolute voice, the devoted friend declared, “I will accompany you to the capital city, through the palace gates, and even into the king’s court. I will stand by your side even when the king is interrogating you. I am with you; I will never leave your side.”

Who are these three best friends that a person has?

The first friend is the wealth and possessions we’ve amassed in this world—our stocks, bonds, securities, real estate. When the time comes for us to depart to the next world, we ask our money to come with us. The money, however, says, “I’ll accompany you, but only until the cemetery. Hearses don’t have luggage racks. Shrouds don’t have pockets. You can’t take it with you.

The second friend is our family. We turn to our spouse, children, grandchildren, and siblings, and plead, “Please come with me!” Our loved ones assure us, “Of course we’ll accompany you. We love you. We’ll come to the cemetery and even attend the funeral. We will escort you all the way to your grave.”

“But then,” our relatives continue, “we’ll need to go home and eat bagels and eggs, and other round things, representing the cycle of life. We’re going to have a party at the shiva house. And maybe we’ll fight over the inheritance.” With a sense of despair, the person exclaims, “Hey! I can’t take my money with me, and my relatives can’t come with me either?!”

So we turn to our only remaining friend—the Torah we studied, the mitzvot we performed, and the good deeds we amassed. The person asks, “Will you come with me?” The Torah and the mitzvot reply, “Not only will we go with you, but we’ll be with you all the way. We will accompany you wherever you go.”

Experiencing Eternity

Let us always be mindful of what is transient, and what is eternal. May our acts of kindness and goodness, our Torah study, and our performance of mitzvot be our guiding light, illuminating the path of eternity. May we all be blessed to lead lives that are engaged in the pursuit of the eternal.