Although this Sidra is entitled “The Life of Sarah,” it really commences with her death and with the sentence, “And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years: These were the years of the life of Sarah.” This highly repetitious wording exercised the Midrashic commentators, who gave three explanations, each emphasizing that the Torah is here praising Sarah for her perfection. The Rebbe examines these explanations, showing how each subtly stresses a different aspect of this perfection; and how, in general, righteousness lifts a person above the vicissitudes of time.

1. The First Midrash

“And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years: These were the years of the life of Sarah.”1 On this verse the Midrash2 comments:

G‑d knows the days of the perfect and their inheritance shall be for ever;”3 just as they are perfect so are their years perfect. At 20 she (Sarah) was as beautiful as at seven; at 100 she was as free from sin as at 20.”

(Another reading has it that she was as beautiful at 100 as at 20, and as sinless at 20 as at 7.)

The commentators, including Rashi, explain that the Midrash is commenting on the threefold repetition of the word “years,” where the phrase “127 years” would have sufficed. And it cites the verse “ G‑d knows the days of the perfect,” making play of the phrase, which could also mean “the perfect days”: Suggesting that each day in the life of the righteous is perfect in itself. And this is reinforced by the verse about Sarah, whose wording suggests that all her years were equal in their perfection.

But there are difficulties in this explanation:

(i) The expression of the Midrash is “just as they are perfect, so their years are perfect.” But if perfection here means freedom from sin, then the perfection of the person and of his days are one and the same thing. But the Midrash in using the language of comparison (“just as”) suggests they are two distinct things.

If, on the other hand, perfection denotes physical beauty, then the Midrash is surely difficult to understand for though Sarah may have been as beautiful at 100 as she was at 20, this was not true of all the intervening period, for there was a time when Sarah was “withered.”4 So at 100 she may have been perfect but her years (i.e., the period until then) were not.

(ii) The very phrase “their years are perfect” is strange, for normally this would be taken to be related to the years themselves. But the Midrash here is unusually taking it to refer to the perfection of the person during these years.

(iii) The Midrash seems to make an unwarranted transition from the phrase “the days of the perfect” to the phrase “so their years are perfect.” Although this verse mentioning “days” is quoted in order to explain the word “years” in the verse from our Sidra, surely it would be more consistent to use the word “days” in explaining the verse discussing “the days of the perfect.”

2. The Second Midrash

After its first explanation, the Midrash adds another: “An alternative explanation is: ‘G‑d knows the days of the perfect’; this refers to Sarah who was perfect in her actions. Rabbi Jochanan said: Like a perfect calf.”

At first glance there are two differences between this and the earlier comment:

(a) the first reading takes “perfect” to apply to “days” while the second applies it to people;

(b) the first understands perfection as comprising all attributes (including the purely physical trait of beauty), but the second relates it to good deeds alone.

But there are problems even in the second Midrash:

(i) Surely the second comment should add something to our understanding of the verse “G‑d knows the days of the perfect.” But what, in effect, does the second comment contain that is not obvious (i.e., that only one who is perfect indeed can be considered perfect)?

(ii) What does Rabbi Jochanan’s comment “like a perfect calf” add to our understanding of what preceded it?

(iii) The Midrash, in saying of the verse from the Psalms, “this refers to Sarah” seems to be explaining that verse rather than the verse from our Sidra which it set out to elucidate.

3. The Third Midrash

After explaining the threefold repetition of the word “years” in our verse, the Midrash then comments on the apparently redundant phrase “these were the years of the life of Sarah,” and relates it to the second phrase of the verse from Psalms, “and their inheritance shall be forever.”

“Why did the Torah need to add, ‘these were the years of the life of Sarah?’ To tell us that the lives of the righteous are precious to G‑d, both in this world and in the world to come.”

But this too requires explanation:

(i) It is obvious that the righteous have a share in the world to come, and even that their future life is precious to G‑d. Why then did the Midrash need to tell us this, and bring a verse from the Psalms to prove it?

(ii) Granted that the future life is hinted at by the repetition “And the life of Sarah was…; these were the years of the life of Sarah” (suggesting two lives, in this world and the next); but how from this verse do we learn the additional point that the lives of the righteous in the world to come are precious to G‑d?

(iii) What is the connection between the two apparently unrelated interpretations of the last phrase of the verse: The simple meaning, that it refers to Sarah’s life in this world; and the Midrashic explanation, that it speaks of her future life?

4. The Preservation of Perfection

We will understand all these points if we first consider the following: When a man finds himself in an environment detrimental to his standards, there are three ways in which he can preserve his integrity:

(i) He can strengthen himself inwardly not to be influenced by his surroundings. But this is an incomplete victory, for if he were to relax his self-control he would capitulate, thus implying a lowering of status.

(ii) He can separate himself from those around him. But again his victory is only because he has removed himself from temptation: He has not met it head-on, and is as prone as ever to be lowered.

(iii) Lastly, he can set out to influence his environment and raise it to his own level.5 This is a complete triumph over one’s surroundings—the dangers have not only been avoided, they have been removed entirely.

In the same way a man can preserve himself from change in the face of sin and even physical decay. He can master the ravages of time.

Firstly by strengthening himself spiritually he can discountenance the blandishments of the material world. But here the possibility of sin remains, warded off only by constant vigilance. This is why the Midrash in speaking of Sarah says that when she was 100 she was like she was at 20—at this level there is only a resemblance, not an identity, of old age to youth.

Secondly, by living the life fired by the essence of the soul rather than by its manifest levels (i.e., by retreat from the physical), one can transcend time and its bodily effects. But this again is an impermanent state, for the body retains its predilection for materialism.

Lastly, when the perceptions of the soul permeate the body and all its actions, one’s physical nature is not suppressed but transformed, and the whole being partakes of the timelessness of the spirit in its relations with G‑d. The possibility of sin does not arise.

5. The Constancy of Sarah

This is why the Midrash explains that Sarah was, at 100, like she was at 20, only after it has cited the verse from Psalms and added, “just as they are perfect so their years are perfect.” Only by perfection of a life comes that state of changelessness which characterized Sarah. And the repetition of the word “years” in the Sidra tells us that each total (100, 20 and 7) is compared to the others: At 100 Sarah was as far from the possibility of sin as she was at 20 or at 7. In other words, she had attained the highest of the three degrees of integrity.

But how can we reconcile this with the fact that she did undergo changes, and that there was a time when she lost her beauty? The word “shnotam” which means “their years” also means “their changes.”6 So the Midrash may subtly be telling us also that even “their changes were perfect.” Even though (and indeed, because) externally the righteous alter and undergo vicissitudes, these ultimately serve only to reveal their underlying constancy, as the light of their souls shines undimmed.

6. The Final Perfection

It has often been explained that the righteous “go from strength to strength”7—meaning that their life is (not merely progression within one level, but) a progression to infinitely higher levels of faithfulness. How then can it be to Sarah’s praise that all her years were equal in their excellence? Surely this implies the absence of such a degree of progress?

This is the problem that the second Midrash comes to solve. By telling us that at the point of her death Sarah achieved “perfection in her actions,” it discloses that she then reached that level of perfection and closeness to G‑d that retroactively perfects all her previous actions (just as true repentance transforms the sins of the past into merits).8

The second Midrash thus goes beyond the first—for the first speaks of an attribute common to all the perfectly righteous figures of history; the second refers to Sarah alone (“this refers to Sarah”), that she transcended this level and actually transformed her earlier actions by her final repentance. And this was why Rabbi Jochanan added the analogy of the “perfect calf,” for it was by the sacrifice of a calf (the Eglah Arufah9) that atonement was retroactively made for all the Children of Israel since their exodus from Egypt.10

7. The Premature Death

But still a problem remains.

Each life has its allotted span, and that limit defines the work which that life has to seek to achieve. But Sarah died prematurely, for, as the Rabbis say, “her soul fainted away”11 when she heard the news of the binding of Isaac (through grief at the binding12 or through excessive joy13). If she did not live to complete her span and its task, how can we call her life perfect?

To answer this, the Midrash tells us, the Torah adds “these were the years of the life of Sarah,” because “the lives of the righteous are precious to G‑d both in this world and the next.” In other words, the righteous who die before their time can complete their work, even in the after-life. Just as the reward for the creation of spiritual benefits is ascribed to the deceased,14 and the good acts of one’s child helps a departed parent.15

8. The Everlasting Spirit

One final difficulty persists. Time in this life is granted to us, not merely to achieve a certain amount of good works, but also so that time itself be sanctified by our actions. A day filled with Mitzvot is a day which has been made to fulfill its purpose. So even though Sarah could complete her task in other-worldly domains, this-worldly time remained unsanctified and imperfect.

This is why the verse, after mentioning the years of Sarah’s life, then continues: “These are the years of the life of Sarah,” referring, as the Midrash tells us, to her after-life. Since the Torah reckons even this as a continuation of her years, it is telling us that her sanctifying influence persisted in time even after her death. The perfect life does not end in death: It sanctifies all that comes after it.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. V pp. 92-104)