Parshat Hayei Sarah opens with the report of the death of Sarah, wife of Abraham. The Torah says, “Now Sarah’s life was 100 years and 20 years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life.”
Of course, the rabbis take note of this odd construction. The Torah could have said, “Sarah lived 127 years.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says that repetition of the word shana, year, teaches us that each span of Sarah’s years can be equated to the others: At 100 she was like 20 in regard to sin (for a 20-year-old girl does not sin because she is not liable to punishment), so that at 100 Sarah was without sin. And at 20 she was like seven in regard to beauty. Rashi adds, “They [the years] were all equal in goodness.”
But how can Rashi say all of Sarah’s years were good? While the Torah doesn’t provide all the details of her life, we know several facts:
• Sarah and Abraham were forced to leave their home in Canaan and travel to Egypt to escape famine.
• On two occasions, to save his own skin, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister, so that she was taken to the bed of a foreign king; only through God’s intervention did she escape being raped.
• And, most important, the very first thing we learn about Sarah is that she was childless. It’s true that at 90 she finally gave birth to her son Isaac, but for many years, until she was well past menopause, she had no child, a source of great distress to her.
So clearly, just like everyone else, Sarah experienced difficult times and personal tragedies. So why does Rashi say all her years were good?
Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli explained it was because Sarah approached life with the attitude “Gam zeh l’tova,” “This too is for the good.” Because she lived with a constant awareness of God’s presence in her life, Sarah was able to accept even events that others might consider to be hardships as opportunities for growth and tried to find some positive aspect in them.
Many of the events that shape our lives — sickness and health, the economy, crime, the weather (think Sandy) — are beyond our control. Every life has tzuris, and many have real tragedy. You can’t control that, but what you can control is your attitude, how you handle the things that come your way. You can choose to be like some people I have known who peer into every corner and pick apart every relationship to find something negative to complain about.
Or you can choose to be like our mother Sarah, insisting that there is nothing in life that is without something positive, some tiny lesson that can help you grow, something life-affirming, some small ray of hope.
Sarah chose to believe that life was good, and it was for this reason that all the years of her life were equal in goodness.