Rav Avi Goldberg
Former Rosh Kollel in Memphis (2008-2011)
Currently teacher at “Himelfarb” high school in Jerusalem
Our parsha is one of two parashot in the Torah whose name is a variation of the word chayim (life) – Parshat Chayei Sarah (“Sarah’s life”) and Parshat Vayechi (literally, “and he lived”). Not coincidentally, both these parashot are found in Sefer Breishit, which deals with the start of life, its creation, and – to a certain degree – its definition. Yet, both parashot actually describe life’s end, an individual’s departure from life. Why then are they called chayim?
Before we answer this question, we must first differentiate between the scientific definition of life and the Torah’s definition of life. Although according to science, life refers to the body’s various movements and its ability to move, exist, and, perhaps also, breathe, the Torah teaches that life must also have meaning and significance. This essential meaning is life itself. When the Creator of Life infused Adam HaRishon with “nishmat chayim (the soul of life),” the Torah states:
“And the man became a nefesh chayah (a living spirit).” (Breishit 2:7)
Adam’s entire being was transformed into a nefesh chayah.
In his work, “Nefesh HaChayim,” R’ Chaim Volozhin notes that the pasuk does not say, “And in man became a nefesh chayah.” Rather, it says, “And the man became a nefesh chayah.” In other words, man’s entire being – and not just his neshamah (soul) – was transformed into a nefesh chayah. Similarly, Onkelos famously translates nefesh chayah as a “speaking spirit” – i.e. the power of speech. This means that life is meaning and significance and not simply existence and motion. Speech is an expression of man’s lofty abilities – his intellectual prowess and his ability to observe and connect.
This approach also explains Chazal’s well-known statement:
“The righteous [after] their death are called living… The wicked in their lifetimes are called dead.” (BT Brachot 18)
The lives of resha’im (the wicked) have no meaning, even when they are still breathing, moving, and acting. Resha’im are the ones who destroy the world; they certainly do not add any positive meaning. In contrast, when tzadikim (the righteous) are dead – and all the more so when they are alive – they add value and contribute to the world. Moreover, even if they are not breathing or moving at a given moment, their teachings live on. In addition, Chazal also state that “the lips of the righteous stir in the grave.” (See BT Sanhedrin 90b.) In other words, even if a tzadik is no longer alive in the scientific sense, his teachings and positive contributions to the world continue to hold sway.
Throughout Sefer Breishit, the meaning of life is expressed in several different ways. For instance:
“And Avraham was old, ba bayamim (advanced in days).” (Breishit 24:1)
A similar phrase is used with respect to Yehoshua Bin Nun and David HaMelech. Chazal explain that ba bayamim (literally, “came with days”) means that all of Avraham’s days “came” with him. In other words, there were no extra meaningless days in Avraham’s life. When Avraham reached old age, all of his days were with him, because they were all significant.
Other examples include:
“The days of the years of Avraham’s life which he lived.” (Breishit 25:7)
Later on, we find a similar expression with respect to Yaakov, and also:
“And the life of Sarah was… the years of the life of Sarah.” (Breishit 23:1)
In each case, Chazal discuss the significance of these tzadikim’s lives. In fact, Chazal learn that Yishmael did teshuvah from thepasuk:
“And these are the years of the life of Yishmael” (Breishit 25:17)
According to Chazal, one must sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress three specific aveirot (transgressions). Yet, many have difficulty relating to this halachah. After all, we know that life is a supreme value in both the Jewish and universal worldview. Moreover, the Torah commanded us:
“And live by them.” (Vayikra 18:5)
We must cast every other mitzvah aside in order to save a single life.
However, life only has value when it is meaningful and connected to Notein HaChayim (the One Who Gives Life). Hence, when life goes against the three basic values which come before life and which denote Notein HaChayim, one must sacrifice life itself. Life is defined by its meaning! (Note that during times of gezeirot and shmad, one must sacrifice one’s life for every mitzvah…)
“But you who cleave to Hashem your God; you are all alive (chayim)today.” (Devarim 4:4)
As long as life is meaningful and connected to Notein HaChayim – to the Foundation upon which life rests – it is truly called chayim.
To our joy and sorrow, we are now privileged to have brave soldiers in our army. Throughout the millennia of the Diaspora, we looked forward to the time when we would have our own soldiers, who would observe all the Torah’s laws – including the halachahof mesirut nefesh (sacrificing one’s life). The Rambam holds that in a war against our oppressors, we are commanded to sacrifice our lives for Am Yisrael’s sake, when necessary. Sadly, we frequently hear remarkable stories of fortitude and Kiddush Hashem, but these incidents give our lives true meaning in the present. These deeds remind us that we must cleave to Notein HaChayim in order to define our lives as chayei emet (lives of truth).