I have never seen such bright white teeth! The
vibrant young couple beamed at me from the huge billboard
looming over the West Side Highway sporting an advertisement
for Newport Cigarettes.
“Alive With Pleasure!” the most beautiful smiling faces
called out to you. At the bottom of the billboard was the
prerequisite white warning box: “Smoking causes lung cancer,
heart disease and may complicate pregnancy.” But no matter,
the smile of this young couple was seductive enough to make
you ignore the warning.
But besides seeing the power of advertising as well as
those two perfect faces, I derived much more benefit that
Newport could ever have imagined.
You see, I was on my way to a talk that I was scheduled
to deliver at a “sheloshim,” a memorial service
marking the thirtieth day from the passing of a fine man.
I was asked to speak about the memory of the departed soul.
I was not sure what I was going to say. Until I saw the
billboard. It gave me all the material I needed, and more.
The memorial service took place in the very same week as
this one, when we read the Torah portion named Chayei Sarah.
So I began my talk by citing the famous question: In Torah
thought, a name expresses the essence of the entity called
by that name. Chayei Sarah – lit. the life of Sarah
– is a very strange name to call this portion, which
discusses Sarah’s death and the events following
her death. Indeed, from the very first verse of this
portion nothing else is told to us except about Sarah’s
death! How Sarah lived 127 years and died in Chevron, how
Abraham came to eulogize and weep for her, how Abraham bought
a burial plot for her, and finally how Abraham buried her
Sarah’s life is actually discussed in the previous two
Torah portions. If the Torah wants to name a portion after
Sarah’s life should it not have named the previous portion
by that name?!
[Though it’s true that the names of the portions are associated
with the opening words of the portion, this is not merely
incidental. Since a name expresses the essence of the portion,
the Torah could have found ways to use the right words at
the opening of the portion to call it by an appropriate
name that reflects the content of the portion].
Yet, precisely by controversially naming the portion that
discusses Sarah’s death “the life of Sarah”
the Torah provokes us, in its inimitable style, to ask the
big question: WHAT EXACTLY IS LIFE? What exactly does it
mean to be ALIVE?
The advertising agency for Newport Cigarettes would have
us believe that life is fresh young faces, white teeth and
blue eyes. They don’t show the true color of the smokers’
teeth. Neither do they show us an x-ray of their lungs.
And this image – gracing the West Side Highway and highways
across America – is called life. Not just life, but “alive
Indeed, this is what modern material life (and perhaps
it’s been this way from the beginning of time) has
imposed upon us: Inundating us with a flurry of subliminal
or overt images, that are meant to shape us with images
to identify with. It’s called the world of projection.
“Who are you?” has been replaced with “what
do you want to look like?” As Madison Avenue cynics
declare: It’s not important what actually happened,
but what people think happened.
Projection. Spin. Buzz. Hype. Brainwashing. Call it whatever
you like. But one thing it is not: reality.
What is valued in our world? What image are we most drawn
to? Advertising executives analyzing ways to manipulate
human emotions continuously peddle their products by projecting
their association with images of youth, good looks, virility,
and other pictures that seduce our senses.
A therapist friend of mine told me that he decided to change
jobs and move into the advertising industry. He was unusually
blunt with his reason: “Hey, therapists and advertising
people are both in the same line of work,” he said.
“They both have a profound understanding of human
emotions. The therapist tries to nurture and heal the emotions;
the advertiser tries to manipulate the emotions, and the
pay is triple…!”
I guess after years of manipulating people’s emotions,
he can then return to therapy and help those people heal…
I assure you that I’m not of the “fire and brimstone” type
getting hysterical over the state of modern advertising.
Advertising has great benefits and can serve a very powerful
role in communicating a message. Much can be learned from
advertising. I surely don’t want to offend any of my readers
who may be in this industry, or for that matter, working
for Newport Cigarettes.
I am simply using advertising and Newport as “scapegoats”
(kosher guinea pigs) to demonstrate the images that shape
our lives, much more than we may ever imagine.
Newport is not spending millions of dollars on their billboards
as a public service. Their beautiful faced billboards are
clearly selling cigarettes. So that image of life is definitely
resonating and permeating our view of ourselves and our
Yes, “Alive with Pleasure” is defined today by images –
superficial and false – that we have bought into. Images
that simply don’t exist in the real world. I challenge anyone
to find a set of such gleaming white teeth, even belonging
So what does it mean to be alive? On the surface it can
be to look like that unrealistic couple adorning the billboard.
Even if you get beyond billboards and TV, it may mean to
be biologically alive: to breathe, walk and talk. To survive.
For others alive may mean emotionally alive, in love, in
a relationship. And for yet others it may mean being intellectually
Is there more to life than all the above? Chayei Sarah,
the life of Sarah, reveals for us a completely new definition
and dimension of life.
The Torah tells us that life – true life –
can really be recognized after the soul passes on. One could
argue that as long as we are biologically alive our appeal
and our influence are based on our physical presence and
the power we wield. When do you know that someone is truly
alive – an eternal life that never dies – when
you see the effects and influence that have remained after
they are physically no longer there. Paradoxically, we learn
more about true life after death than before it.
The fact that we are discussing Sarah’s life 3579
years after she has physically died, and are indeed gleaning
lessons from her life as to the meaning of true, eternal
life today – is the greatest tribute to her own eternity!
How many people do we remember even 100 years after their
death, let alone three and a half millennia later?! Many
people were very powerful while they were physically around,
while they exercised power and control. But once they died,
many of them were quickly forgotten, and the power they
once so mercilessly wielded dissipated as quickly as it
Indeed, the Talmud tells us, corrupt people are considered
dead even in their lifetimes. By contrast, righteous people
are considered alive even in their deaths.
This is an awesome thought. Today, at the dawn of the ultra-modern
21st century we actually know and can retrace
the exact steps, the exact location and activities that
Sarah – and for that matter Abraham and so many other
greats – took thousands of years ago. I never will
forget the first time I visited the Machpeilah cave in Chevron
in 1972, the burial place that Abraham bought, and where
the four renowned couples are buried (Adam and Eve, Abraham
and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah). I just stood
transfixed, staring at the area, completely overwhelmed
by the fact that this was the spot where so many powerful
Biblical events that I grew up with took place thousands
of years ago.
Back “home,” in New York, this concept does not even enter
one’s mind. When you walk the streets of Manhattan the most
“historical” wonder you may come up with is how the White
Dutch bought this island from the Lenape Indians for material
worth $24 [60 Dutch guilders, which was calculated in 1874
to have the value of $24] – look now at the looming skyscrapers…
And look at the value of this island today…
Does that make you feel alive? Does it help you live more
wholesomely, does it assuage your existential loneliness
or pain, does it help you or your children? Wow, a $24 investment
turned into a multi-trillion dollar return! It’s as
awesome and life affirming as the white teeth on the smiling
If you want to be acquainted with real life, look at Chayei
Sarah, the life of Sarah – a woman, a wife and mother
whose life, love and inspiration influences and motivates
not only her husband and son (Isaac) but generations to
come until this very day. Isaac recognized his bride by
seeing that her illuminating aura resembled his mother’s.
Today, women and girls light Shabbat candles every Friday
eve (before sunset) as Sarah did. Lessons upon lessons of
Sarah’s life infused millions of people with hope
and direction for the last 3½ thousand years!
You tell me who is more alive: The most powerful CEO of
our times or Sarah?
The life of Sarah (Chayei Sarah) after her death
teaches us more about life than we learn from our own experiences
of life. It teaches us that true life is spiritual life:
The eternal things we do today are the ones that never die.
I offer a toast to Newport cigarettes for making us think
about the meaning of being alive with pleasure.
So now, the irresistible, inevitable question: Do you feel
that you are alive, truly alive?