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 then 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 there.
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 with pleasure!”
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 lives.
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 to non-smokers…
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 alive.
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 came.
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 of Sarah – and for that matter Abraham and so many other greats – millenia 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 Newport couple…
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?