A story is told about an elderly carpenter who was ready to retire. He told his boss about his plans to leave the house-building industry and his desire to live a more leisurely life with his family.
His boss was sad to see one of his best workers go and asked his employee for a last favor before his retirement: to build him one more house. The carpenter obliged and fulfilled his last job without much precision, accuracy, or joy.
Upon completion, the boss came to inspect the house and handed him the key. “For all of your years of service,” said his boss, “I’m gifting you this house.” Dumbfounded, the carpenter did not know how to respond! If he had only known that he was actually building his own house, he would have worked on it differently.
This story can be likened to how we build our lives. We spend much of our days building – often putting less than our best into the effort. Then, all of the sudden, we realize we have to live in the house we have built, wondering what our lives would look like if we built differently the first time.
In our Torah portion this week, Chayei Sarah, translated as “the life of Sarah,” we ironically read about her death. The portion begins with:
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
often times translated as, “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” But the literal translation reads more like: “And Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.”
Notice the repetition of the word “years.” The Torah parses no words and our tradition teaches us that each word has significance. After we read that she lived “one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years, why include the additional phrase: “these are the years of Sarah…”?
The famous 11th century medieval French commentator, Rashi, taught that the addition of this phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life” is “repeated and without a number to indicate that they were all equally good.”
Based on this teaching, what might we learn about our own lives? Would you say that all of your years have been equally good? While many of my years have been good, I can tell you honestly that not all of them have been good. I would venture to guess that might be true for many of us. So, precisely what might our tradition want to teach us, if it seems impossible to ensure all of our years are equally good?
Perhaps it can be found in how we define “good.” There is so much of our lives that is good, blessed, positive, and yet, so often we do not pay attention—on a regular basis—to all that is good.
We usually don’t notice that specific body parts are working … until we injure them. We usually don’t pay attention that we have a roof over our head … until our roof begins leaking. We usually don’t fully appreciate our parents … until they are no longer around.
Sadly, too often we take what we have for granted. The invitation here is to begin to focus our attention toward the good that we already have. Can we set aside moments during our days, to pause and reflect, to offer thanks, and to express gratitude for all the good in our lives?
When we say that all of Sarah’s years were equally good, I like to believe that it was because Sarah chose to focus on the goodness in her life, the blessings abounding, even when there were events in her life (and we know that there were!) that were not good.
We each choose how we are going to build our lives. I have heard it said that life is a “do-it-yourself” project. Your attitude, and the choices you make today, help build the “house” you will live in tomorrow. Therefore, build wisely!