Fascinatingly, the Hebrew word for “life” has no singular form. The word “chaim” means life, but literally, it means multiple lives. (The word “chai” means alive — an adjective.) So when we toast, “L’chaim!” we are not really saying “To life!”; we are saying “To many lives!”
Like everything holy, the Holy Tongue has no coincidences and there is endless depth to be found in this grammatical twist. Here is one:
A life lived only for oneself is no life at all. A real life is one that enlivens others. My life, your life, every life — they all need to involve lives.
A wise man once said, “What counts as currency on earth does not count as currency in Heaven; in Heaven they accept no cash or credit — they do, however, accept charitable receipts.” Ultimately, the Creator Who gave us our lives is less interested in how well we did for ourselves and more interested in how well we did for others.
This is surely one of the reasons for the peculiar name of this week’s Parshah: Chayei Sarah — the lives of Sarah. It is peculiar not only for its plural description of Sarah’s one life (as discussed) but also for the timing: The parshah features not the story of her life but rather the story of her passing, her funeral, her shiva. And that we call “the lives of Sarah”?
And yet, how true it is. Sarah touched thousands of people with her kindness, her hospitality and her education. She made people feel respected and valued; she gave people a place to call home when they were far from their own; and, above all, by teaching people about G-d and His purpose for the world, she gave people a life. She infused meaning into their life, and they came alive. Thus, she lived her life and, even after passing, she helped them live theirs. These are “the lives of Sarah.”
She gave life to her son Yitzchok (Isaac). She bore him at the age of 90, a happy vehicle for a Divine miracle to bring this precious child into the world, and with him, a world of happiness. Even in her old age, she nursed him, raised him, molded him, defended him, fought for him and made him into the forefather of Israel he would become. She lived her life, and even after her passing, his life was a result of hers. These are “the lives of Sarah.”
And you, dear reader, if a Jewish heart beats in your chest, or if Torah values guide your days, is your life not a gift from the life of Sarah? If Torah’s wisdom inspires you, and the Shema strengthens you, and Shabbat preserves you, and Chanukah warms you, and Purim ignites you, and Pesach sets you free, and the High Holidays elevate you — is your life an extension of Sarah’s?
And not just you and me, but the millions of Jewish lives lived with inner joy and meaning since the dawn of our people: These are all “the lives of Sarah.”
May G-d bless us and help us emulate our matriarch Sarah even if only to a degree. May we open our eyes to the truth that a life is only a life when it breathes life in another. Wisdom is only wise when it is taught; money is only valuable when it is shared; life is only eternal when it is plural.
So this Friday night, raise a glass at your Shabbat table, share this truth with your family and friends, and join me in a jolly toast: “L’Chaim! To many lives!”
Shabbat Shalom. PJC
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute — North East Region. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.