Though our parashah is called “The Life of Sarah”, it in fact begins with her death, teaching us through its very name that our task when one dies is to remember them, even as we are moving forward in our own lives and narratives. This message is timely and poignant for us as we find ourselves thinking of those lost so terribly and suddenly in the Pittsburgh shooting this past Shabbat. With them in mind, I found myself noticing a particular, linguistic feature of our parasha, where Abraham is described as ba b’yamim. This description, also given to Sarah in last week’s parasha, is often translated as “well advanced in years”, but as my teacher Rabbi Aaron Panken - Alav HaShalom - explained, ba b’yamim is not about age, but in actuality denotes a level of honour reserved for just a special few. In our sacred texts, it is only used in reference to Abraham, Sarah, Joshua and King David.
A sixteenth century commentator, Rabbi Moses Alshech (d. circa 1593, in Safed) wrote that ba b’yamim meant that Abraham was “full of content and life” and, in relation to Sarah, "that all of her years were years of life.” Abraham and Sarah were to be respected not simply for the duration of their years on the earth, but also, as Rabbi Panken wrote, “for the particular quality of what (they) did with (their) allotted moments of life.”
It is clear, from the details we are learning about them, that each of the 11 victims of the shooting in Pittsburgh was also ba b’yamim – each one having used their allotted moments of life in beautiful ways - dedicating themselves to regular attendance, participation and volunteerism within their Jewish and extended communities, as well as being beloved and devoted family members. Their loss will certainly be felt keenly by many.
Rabbi Panken wrote that the implication of ba b’yamaim is - for those who achieve this title of honour - that, “their greatness lies not in simple longevity, but in the use of every precious moment to its greatest effect. It is in making every second count, and using each one in upright, fully developed ways, that we become great.” These words, written by one who was lost far too soon, resonate with particular sharpness, reminding us that while we mourn the tragedy of lives cut short - no matter what number of years were attained - we can honour them best by following their example – committing ourselves to devoting our own unique and particular quality to our loved ones and to our communities, for each of our own allotted moments of life.
Kein Yehi Ratzon