In Sefer Bereishit, there are two Parshiot that seem to have improper names: this week’s Parsha, Chayei Sarah, and Parshat Vayechi. These names are strange because these Parshiot deal with the deaths of great people (Sarah and Avraham in Chayei Sarah, Yaakov and Yosef in Vayechi), but their titles refer to life. Why did Chazal name these Parshiot the way they did?
In Melachim I, Chapter 3, we read of the famous dream of Shlomo Hamelech. In it Hashem allows Shlomo to ask for whatever he wants. Shlomo asks for only one thing, wisdom, and Hashem grants him this. Furthermore, Hashem grants Shlomo everything else that he could have asked for, including long life. We know that Shlomo only lived for 52 years; how is this a “long life”? We can explain that life is not only measured in physical terms but also in spiritual terms, which is where life is really lived. Shlomo was granted a reward of long life in Olam Habah (the World to Come), not in Olam Hazeh (this world).
In Pirkei Avot, there is a famous statement of Rabbi Yaakov: “This world is like a lobby before Olam Habah; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall” (4:21). This means that every person must prepare himself in this world by keeping Torah and Mitzvot so that he can enter Olam Habah and take part in the “wonderful banquet” that is waiting there for him. This is when life really begins.
The Gemara (Chagiga 15) relates a story that illustrates this point in a most graphic way. There was a very famous Rabbi, the teacher of Rabbi Meir, whose name was Elisha ben Avuya. We are told that he was out one day and saw a young boy going to send away a mother bird (the Mitzva of שילוח הקן) as per his father’s instructions. One who performs the Mitzva of שילוח הקן and the Mitzva of honoring one’s parents is promised a long life, but when the boy was coming down from the tree he fell to his death. After Elisha ben Avuya saw this event, he asked how there could be a God. After all, the reward for these Mitzvot is long life, yet the boy died in the act of doing these Mitzvot. This was one of the events that eventually caused Elisha ben Avuya to leave Judaism and assimilate into Hellenist society. It is clear that when the Torah says the reward for these Mitzvot is long life it does not necessarily mean life in the physical sense but in terms of spiritual life in Olam Habah. Elisha never accepted this interpretation.
On the basis of these comments we can now explain the titles of these Parshiot. It is true that these Parshiot deal with the deaths of four great people, but this is only their physical deaths, not their spiritual deaths. In fact, when they arrived in Olam Habah, they first began to live in the spiritual sense. Chazal convey this message to us in the names of the Parshiot and in the lessons we have explained from the Navi, Mishna, and Gemara.