The Deeper Connection Between Sarah and Esther
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
Bereishis, 23:1: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah.”
Rashi, 23:1: “All equal in goodness.”
Bereishis Rabbah, 58:3: “Rebbe Akiva was sitting and teaching, and the people were dozing off. He wanted to awaken them, so he said, ‘why was it that Esther ruled over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces? Rather, Esther, who was the descendant of Sarah who lived one hundred and twenty-seven years, should rule over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.”
The Torah Portion begins outlining the length of the life of Sarah – 127 years. The Midrash cites a story where Rebbe Akiva sought to awaken his dozing students by noting a second mention of the number 127 – with regard to Queen Esther who ruled over 127 provinces. Rebbe Akiva asserts that the reason Esther ruled over precisely this number of provinces was because her ancestor, Sarah, lived for 127 years. The question arises, that it is surely not just a sweet coincidence that this number appears in two such seemingly separate places in Tanach. There must be some kind of deeper connection between Sarah and Esther in particular that caused Rebbe Akiva to state that the extent of Esther’s power as Queen derived from the length of Sarah’s life. What is that connection?
In order to be able to answer this, it is instructive to analyze a brief comment of Rashi with regard to Sarah’s life – he notes that all of her years were equal in goodness. What exactly does this mean? The simple understanding would be that she was equally righteous throughout her life. However, it is possible to offer a different explanation that focuses on how Sarah herself viewed all the years of her life. Much of Sarah’s life was full of tribulations and pain. She was childless until the age of 90, while all her family around her gave birth easily. On two occasions, she was abducted by powerful Kings, and she endured the tribulations of Hagar. Each of these misfortunes alone could be enough to traumatize a person for life. When she finally gave birth to Yitzchak, she was able to enjoy some good years, but these were greatly outnumbered by the ‘bad’ years. Yet, Rashi teaches us, that, evidently, she viewed the difficult years in the same way as the joyous years.
This attitude is expressed in the Gemara in Brachos.1 The Gemara teaches that just as it is appropriate to make a blessing over good happenings, so too it is appropriate to make a blessing over bad happenings. How can a person do this? By recognizing that the challenges and suffering are also essential pieces in the puzzle of the person’s life. We will only fully see how the tribulations were of equal importance to the good time in the Next World. This is why in this world, we bless Baruch Dayan Emet (Blessed is the True Judge) at tragic occurrences referring to our acceptance that what happened is for the best even though it is painful. However, in the Next World we will so ‘HaTov VeHameitiv’ (He is good and does good) – the same blessing we say on happy occasions. Yet, we can have an intellectual recognition that all the days of one’s lives are vital and that they all fit in the big picture. Moreover, there are many times when we can see how something painful helped us grow as person or had positive consequences in the long-term. Doing this will enable a person to see their entire life as a series of intrinsically connected and essential events, not a bunch of disparate occurrences. When it says that all of Sarah’s years were equally good, essentially, it means that Sarah was able to unite all of her life into one continuous event where all the many difficult years were equally ‘good’ as the years of obvious joy.
What does all this have to do with the connection between Sarah’s age of 127 and Esther rule over 127 nations? In order to answer this, we need to understand how the Torah views the role of a King or Queen. Rabbi David Fohrman explains:
A queen, when successful, is a uniter. She is not merely someone who makes the rules for a certain territory or decides the fate of her subjects in that territory. A queen does do all that, but if she is really successful, she also unites her subjects in some way, she transforms a mere territory into a nation. The people that comprise a nation are not just individuals, milling around, living in proximity to one another. They have some sort of common cause that binds them together, and the monarch is a living symbol of that cause. Hopefully, she works proactively to advance it. How does a king or a queen advance that cause? At their best, monarchs find ways to join individual talents to create a larger whole. Bob is a blacksmith, Phil is a farmer, Carol is a shepherdess, Beryl is a tailor... and the monarch? The monarch finds a way to incorporate the energies of Bob, Phil, Carol, and Beryl, towards common goals. A king or queen unites unique individuals and directs their talents towards the service of the nation’s cause. Esther played such a role on the grandest of stages, on the world stage, uniting peoples across far-flung provinces.
Esther’s role as a uniter of people had a precedent in Sarah’s ability to unite her years. This, Rabbi Fohrman argues, is the deeper connection that Rebbe Akiva was alluding to. Yet the connection goes further as there is evidence that Sarah herself was a ruler over nations just like Esther. Sarah’s name was originally Sarai which means, ‘My Princess’. God then changed her name to Sarah to allude to the fact that Rulers of nations will come from her.2 Rabbi Fohrman goes further – he asks, where do we see that ruler of nations (in the plural) come from Sarah? He suggests that the verse itself alludes to Esther herself. In this way, we see that both Sarah and Esther were rulers who united – Sarah united time and Esther united space.
We have seen how a person can merit to be a ‘ruler’ by uniting – by uniting the years of one’s life by recognizing that they are all part of the puzzle and that the ‘bad’ times are in reality the same as the ‘good’ times. And by uniting people to serve in a common cause – we may not merit to Kings or Queens, but each person in their life, will have times where he can unite people, whether it be his family, friends, employees or others, to serve a common cause. By excelling in these two aspects of unity, one can emulate Sarah and Esther.
- Brachot, 54a.
- Bereishit, 17:15-16.