The Years of Sarah’s Life: Sur MeRa Ve’Aseh Tov by Rabbi Jake Berman  


Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with a description of the duration of Sarah Imeinu’s life. The Torah states, “VaYihyu Chayei Sarah Mei’ah Shanah Ve’Esrim Shanah VeShevah Shanim Shenei Chayei Sarah”, “and the lifetime of Sarah was one-hundred years, twenty years, and seven years, [these were] the days of Sarah’s life” (BeReishit 23:1). Rashi (s.v. ibid. “VaYihyu Chayei” etc.) famously interprets the Torah’s “additive” formulation by expounding upon each set of years individually: “when Sarah was one-hundred, it was as if she was twenty in relation to sin; just as a twenty-year-old is without sin, as they are not subject to punishment, so too Sarah was without sin at the age of one-hundred. And when she was twenty she was as beautiful as she was when she was seven.” Additionally, Rashi comments (s.v. “Shenei Chayei Sarah”) on the Pasuk’s closing clause, “Shenei Chayei Sarah”, “the days of Sarah’s life.” He writes, “Kulan Shavin LeTovah”, that the years of Sarah’s life “were all equal in regard to goodness.”

The irregular nature of the opening Pasuk is not limited to the peculiarity of its format. The very fact that the Torah describes the length of Sarah’s life at all seems to be unprecedented. The Zohar (121b) asks: “What is the difference by Sarah, that the Torah specifies her death (in terms of years), from all other women in the Torah whose deaths’ are not mentioned in terms of years? Because when Sarah was taken captive by Paroh in Mitzrayim, she turned away and did not cling to him at all. As the Pasuk states, ‘And they sent him off with his wife and all that he owned’ (BeReishit 12:20).  And through this act, Sarah, her husband and her children afterward merited a lofty, elevated life. Therefore, because of this happening, Sarah merited the enumeration of the years of her life within the Torah…”

The Shem MeShmuel (Rav Shmuel Bornstein from Sogotchov, the Avnei Nezer’s son) wonders why the Zohar specifically focused on the merit Sarah gained by not clinging to Paroh and Mitzrayim. By her interaction with Paroh (or lack thereof), Sarah did not actively do anything. She remained passive and neutral-- she did not cling. So why did her separation from Paroh and Mitzrayim result in her earning such significant merit?

Based on another Zohar, the Shem MeShmuel explains that “the more a person distances him or herself from the clutches of the evil inclination, the more the person enters into Kedushah.” Meaning, that refraining from falling into the traps of the Yetzer Harah doesn’t just maintain an individual’s level of Kedushah, but rather it generates more Kedushah. Even though this action was not really an action at all, but rather a refrain from negative activity. In other words, Kedushah is not only generated through an Aseh Tov, positive action, but even more so from a Sur M’Ra, a distancing of oneself from evil. Essentially through her separation from Mitzrayim, Sarah Imeinu was able to generate an immense amount of Kedushah, and thus merited the inclusion of the duration of her life in the Torah.

Perhaps this idea explains a famous concept found in the Gemara (Berachot 34a) that “Tzadikim who never sinned cannot stand where Ba'alei Teshuvah stand, as the Pasuk says ‘Shalom Shalom LaRachok VeLaKarov’, ‘the Rachok (far) is in front of the near’ - 'Far' refers to one who was far from Hashem (but repented). 'Near' refers to one who was always close.”  The Rambam codifies this Gemara in Hilchot Teshuvah (7:4):  “The Chachamim said: The place where Ba’alei Teshuva stand Tzaddikim cannot stand, as if to say that their level is above the level of those who never sinned, because it is more difficult for them to subdue their passion.”

The Ba’al Teshuva can accomplish something that the Tzadik will never be able to achieve. As the Rambam formulated, a person that has previously been involved in sin is tempted to repeat his negative actions. Yet, he makes the difficult and challenging decision to turn away-- he is Sur MeRa.  This dissociation has an effect-- it is not a neutral endeavor. By actively separating oneself from the negative, one is able to generate an immense amount of Kedushah, which is subsequently transferred throughout the world. Never before, even in the depths of Mitzrayim, have the Jewish people been tested in areas of Kedushah as we are today. Although it may seem as if we are fighting an uphill battle, nevertheless, when we are tested, and we turn away from improper actions, we may actually find ourselves on top quicker than we’ve ever imagined.

            In light of this Gemara and Zohar, Rashi’s comments on the first Pasuk become abundantly clear. The Pasuk’s unusual listing of the years, and its repetition of “Shenei Chayei Sarah” establishes Sarah’s righteousness (she was without sin, and the years of her life were “Kulan Shavin LeTovah”). She was “Sur MeRa” throughout her entire life, an undertaking traditionally associated with Ba’alei Teshuvah. Thus, Sarah established the merit of refraining from negative action, and thus merited the inclusion of her “Kulan Shavin LeTovah” years of her life within the Torah’s description of her death.

On the flipside, one should not make light of the Kedushah that is brought into the world through positive action, “Aseh Tov.” Rav Chaim Vital (Sha’ar HaGilgulim 38:140, quotes the Ari’’zl as saying “A small action (Mitzvah) done in this generation is equal to numerous great Mitzvot done in earlier generations. As today, the challenges are very, very great, unlike the challenges of earlier generations.” If this was said in the 16th century, can you imagine what one Mitzvah looks like today in 2018? We can’t fathom how much light we bring into the world when we decide to recognize the Borei Olam through our positive actions.

Although this generation has challenges that we’ve never faced before, we should never view these challenges as obstacles, but rather as opportunities to bring more Kedushah and light into this world, both in Sur MeRa (distancing from bad) and Aseh Tov (actively doing good). It’s important to remember and internalize that refraining from doing bad doesn’t just keep one at a status quo, but rather brings as much, if not more, light into the world than a proactive positive action does. No other generation has faced the same spiritual challenges that we do, and therefore no other generation can bring the same Kedushah into the world that we’re able to bring. It is specifically at times when we emerge victorious over our great spiritual conflicts that we bring an immense amount of light and Kedushah into the world. This was perhaps Sarah’s great legacy that she passed to us across all generations; to be able to withstand the trials and tribulations that we all face individually and communally. 


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