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THE MERCHANT OF DEATH IS DEAD

Thursday, 5 November, 2015 - 1:42 pm

Debbie refused to allow her skin to give in to old age. She went and bought a new line of expensive cosmetics guaranteed to make her look years younger.

After a lengthy session before the mirror applying the "miracle" products, she asks her husband Jerry, "Darling, honestly, if you didn't know me, what age would you say I am?"

Looking over her carefully, Jerry replied, "Judging from your skin, twenty; your hair, eighteen; your cheeks, twenty; your hands fifteen; your eyes, thirty; your stature thirty five."

"Oh, you flatterer!" she began to gush, when  Jerry interrupted her:

"WHOA, hold on there sweetheart! I haven't added them up yet!"

The following true, funny and cruel story happened in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, on July 29, 1999. At that time, the speaker of the Israeli parliament was Avraham Burg, a well-known Israeli politician and author.

Amnon Rubinstein was an Israeli politician and academic who served in the Israeli legislature for 25 years and was the Minister of Justice and Education. Today he is 86 years old.

In 1999, Amnon Rubinstein was admitted to Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital following a mild stroke. A man identifying himself as the director of the neurology ward at the hospital phoned the Knesset secretariat to impart the sad news that Mr. Rubinstein had passed away.

Mr. Burg, new to his post, interrupted an all-night session of the Knesset to deliver an emotional eulogy for his late colleague. He then led the Parliament in prayer for the soul of Amnon Rubinstein.

Minutes later the Knesset house physician rushed towards the speaker's office shouting, "He's alive! He's not dead."

Visibly embarrassed, Mr. Burg told the Knesset the telephone call had been a prank.

The funniest thing in all of this was that Rubinstein was watching live from his hospital bed as Burg delivered a eulogy for him on the floor of the Knesset!

Mr. Rubinstein burst out laughing. The minister assured his colleagues that “rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated.”

Amnon Rubinstein later said: "The news of my demise is somewhat slightly premature. I laughed out loud. We all have a secret wish to be present at our own funerals. So I was half-present.

"(Mr. Burg's) remarks were so nice... that when the day does come, I appoint him to deliver the eulogy."

This story reminded me of another fascinating episode. The world's most famous set of awards are the Nobel Prizes. Presented for outstanding achievement in literature, peace, economics, medicine and the sciences, they were created a century ago by Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), a man who amassed his fortune by producing explosives. Among other things, Nobel invented dynamite.

What motivated this Swedish munitions manufacturer to dedicate his fortune to honoring and rewarding those who benefited humanity?

Here’s the story: When Nobel's brother died, a newspaper ran a long obituary of Alfred Nobel, believing that it was he who had passed away. Thus, Nobel had an opportunity granted to few: to read his obituary while alive. What he read horrified him! The newspaper sported the head line "The merchant of Death is dead" and described him as a man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else who had ever lived.

At that moment, Nobel realized two things: that this was how he was going to be remembered, and that this was not how he wanted to be remembered. Shortly thereafter, he established the awards. Today, because of his doing so, everyone is familiar with the Nobel Prize, while relatively few people know how Nobel made his fortune.

Amnon Rubinstein watched his eulogy; Alfred Noble read his eulogy. In this week’s Torah portion we have somewhat of an opposite trend. Instead of Sarah seeing her eulogy while alive, she has passed away but is still considered to be living.

This week's portion is Chayei Sarah, which means the Life of Sarah. Yet in reality, only the first verse talks of Sarah living, and even that as a summation of her life: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.”

The portion goes on to chronicle the death of Sarah, the negotiations for the purchase of her burial plot in Hebron, her burial, the marriage of her son Isaac and his new wife, Rebecca, who replaced Sarah in her position of Matriarch of the fresh Hebrew tribe, and so on.

Yet the name of the entire portion is Chayei Sarah, "the life of Sarah!" How is this to be reconciled with the concept that the name of a Torah portion expresses its essential theme and message? Ostensibly, the events of Chayei Sarah emphasize the fact that Sarah is no more!

During her lifetime, together with her husband Abraham, Sarah pioneered the Jewish settlement of the Land of Canaan. As described in the opening chapter of Chayei Sarah, her burial in the Cave of Machpeilah achieved the first actual Jewish ownership of land in the Holy Land. Sarah devoted her life to the creation of the first Jewish family; indeed, the story of Rebecca's selection demonstrates how Sarah's successor embodied the ideals upon which Sarah founded the Jewish home.

Thus the name Chayei Sarah expresses this Torah section's true import. Indeed, none of the earlier Torah sections that relate the events of Sarah's life before her death can merit the name "The Life of Sarah." These describe what can be seen as a temporal life–a life with a beginning and an end, a life confined to a particular body and a particular span of time. The true Chayei Sarah comes to light in the events following her death, when the eternity of her life is revealed.

How do you know the depth and longevity of your life? When we look at your children, your students, your disciples, and the people you touch, we see how you will live on. Sarah continue to live and inspire us because she understood that the positive influence we have on our children, loved ones, and friends can never die.

When we die we don’t disappear; rather, we are “gathered into the people.” That’s where we wind up–in people, not in the ground.

A wise man once said, "You can't compare me to my father. Our similarities are different." I am not my father. Your son is not you. But it is our similarities that are different. There is something each of us can implant in the souls of those that we influence. And that lives on.

 

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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