The First Matriarch
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
A deeper look at the life of Sarah.
The lifetime of Sarah consisted of one hundred years, twenty years and seven years. These were the years of Sarah's life. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. [Genesis 23:1-2]
At the outset of this Torah portion we are seemingly informed that Sarah died at the age of 127. But we are really told a great deal more than that. In fact, in this passage the Torah tells us just what kind of a woman Sarah was.
Rashi comments, based on the Midrash, that when Sarah was 100, she was like a 20-year-old regarding sin. Until the age of 20 one is not held responsible for one's actions -- i.e. sinless -- and Sarah was clean of all sin at 100 years of age. When she was 20, the Midrash continues, she was like a 7-year-old regarding beauty. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains that a 7-year-old is beautiful -- perhaps not in a sexual or sensual sense -- but beautiful as only an innocent child can be beautiful. So Sarah was sinless and beautiful all her life (one of the three most beautiful women of the Tanach.)
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains further that the greatness of Sarah can be culled from the words of Rashi: "The years of Sarah's lifetime: all were equal for the good." [Rashi 23:1] She was 100, she was 20, she was 7. Most people pass from one stage of their lives to the next, leaving the previous stage behind, perhaps taking with them some fond memories. Each one of these ages -- 100, 20, 7 -- has something unique about it. The 7-year-old has innocence; the 20-year-old has strength; the 100-year-old has wisdom. The secret of the greatness of Sarah was that throughout her entire life she was 100 and 20 and 7.
All of Sarah's years were equal. At every point in her life, she remained the same. She was always as innocent as a 7-year-old, with the strength, determination and idealism of a 20-year-old, and always possessed the wisdom of a 100-year-old.
Let us take a deeper look at each of these traits:
- In order for people to pray, they need to feel that God is really listening. Adults often become cynical and lose the ability to stand before God and share their innermost secrets and aspirations. The child, who is innocent, has not developed such cynicism. The child possesses the ability to pray. When we pray, we need to feel that God is our Father in Heaven; we are His children. Sarah always felt that way.
- The greatness of a 20-year-old is physical strength and idealism. The 20-year-old feels that he or she can change the world, can do just about anything -- there are no limits, no rules, only potential. Sarah never felt limited. Sarah always had strength. Sarah was always idealistic.
- The 100-year-old possesses wisdom. After years of living, a person gains the perspective which only experience can give. Great sages are almost always elderly people whose skills have not diminished over the years. Quite the opposite: they possess wisdom that transcends "book knowledge". Sarah always had this wisdom.
Sarah was always 100, and 20, and 7. Throughout her life she possessed all these skills. This is the greatness of Sarah. This is why she was our first Matriarch.
But there is more we can learn about the greatness of Sarah from the Torah. As we saw above, this portion, Chaye Sarah -- "the lifetime of Sarah" -- in fact begins with the death of Sarah. A great deal of the narrative is devoted to the burial of Sarah on the one hand, and the search for a wife for Isaac on the other. It marks the transition of matriarchs, from Sarah to Rebecca, and for that matter of the patriarchs as well, from Abraham to Isaac.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovietchik once noted that without Sarah "Abraham takes leave of the world stage." Despite Abraham's relative longevity, he seems to disappear after Sarah's death. He ceases to be a major player as the mantle of leadership passes to Isaac and Rebecca.
Abraham and Sarah were complete partners, and therefore the death of the one causes the focus to be removed from the other. Abraham was keenly aware of this partnership. Hence, as soon as the burial and mourning period ended, a replacement for Sarah in the family camp -- a wife for Isaac who could fill the matriarchal role -- was sought.
The fact that Abraham and Sarah were indeed partners can be discerned from the very outset. In the Torah portion Lech Lecha, we are told that when Abraham and Sarah started out for the Land of Canaan, they brought with them "the souls which they made in Haran." We understand this to mean the people they converted to monotheism. Rashi tells us: "Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women." Thus Abraham and Sarah were equals, each working in his or her own realm.
Sarah was obviously more than just the woman who prepared the meals for Abraham's guests. She clearly took a much more proactive role in educating and inspiring other women. Of all of her students, one stands out in particular: Hagar. Hagar is introduced in the Torah as an Egyptian servant of Sarah, acquired during Sarah's brief stay in Pharoah's court. [see Genesis 12:11-20] The Midrash cited by Rashi gives us some biographical information about Hagar:
R'Simeon ben Yohai said: "Hagar was Pharaoh's daughter. When Pharaoh saw what was done on Sarah's behalf in his own house, he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying, 'Better let my daughter be a handmaid in this house than a mistress in another house'" [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 45:1)
Hagar was royalty. She was an aristocrat. When it became apparent to Sarah that she would be unable to bear children, she saw Hagar as an appropriate partner for Abraham, one with the most illustrious lineage that she could find. A lesser woman than Sarah might have been afraid to bring in such "competition," but Sarah hoped that if Abraham was to have a child, that child must be the greatest child possible. As chapter 16 of the Book of Genesis relates, in an act of complete self-sacrifice, Sarah invites the beautiful Egyptian princess to become a partner with her husband.
Hagar, who had been the primary disciple of Sarah, becomes pregnant and bears a child. As a result, she concludes that God has now chosen her over Sarah and that Sarah is an unworthy partner for Abraham. She begins to conduct herself as the wife.
The Midrash paints the picture:
Hagar would tell (other women): "My mistress Sarah is not inwardly what she is outwardly; she appears to be a righteous woman, but she is not. For had she been a righteous woman, (she would have conceived) see how many years have passed without her conceiving, whereas I conceived in one night." [Midrash Rabbah 45:4]
One can understand, and perhaps even sympathize with the position of Hagar. She believed that she was born to lead, but that the search for truth had led her away from her father's pagan world. Abraham's genius enraptured her, and she came to believe that it was better for her to serve in that house than to rule Egypt. But now she was given the opportunity to rule in Abraham's house; she believed that she had received a divine sign that she, who was born to be queen, would indeed be the queen -- of Abraham's nascent movement. Hagar's mistake was in assuming that Abraham alone led the people, that he alone was a spiritual giant. What she failed to recognize was that it was a partnership, the combination of Abraham and Sarah, which was the basis for the great spiritual movement she herself had become a part of.
Sarah did understand: Sarah responds, not out of selfishness, nor out of jealousy. Sarah understands that she and Abraham are partners and equals. At the point when Hagar gets carried away, Sarah informs Abraham it is time to send Hagar away. Abraham finds it quite difficult. But, of course, Sarah was right. God confirms it.
God said to Abraham: 'Whatever Sarah your wife says you shall listen.'[Genesis 21:12]
We can further appreciate the greatness of Sarah by exploring a second passage in the Midrash [Midrash Rabbah-Genesis 60:16] as explained by Rashi:
"As long as ... Sarah was alive, there was a candle lit from Friday night to Friday night. Her dough was blessed, and a cloud was tied to her tent. When Sarah died, all these things ceased. When Rebecca entered the tent, all these phenomena returned."
This reference to "a cloud tied to her tent" is obscure. This is the only usage of this phrase in Midrash. There is, however, one time that a cloud is tied to something else -- a mountain. We recall the discussion between Abraham and Isaac as they headed toward Mount Moriah for the impending sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham looked up and saw a mountain with a peculiar cloud tied to the mountain. Isaac shared this vision, but the others who accompanied them saw only the mountain.
The Midrash explains:
[Abraham] saw a cloud tied to the mountain, and said: "It appears that that is the place where the Holy One, blessed be He, told me to sacrifice my son." ... He then said to him: "Isaac, my son, seest thou what I see?" "Yes," he replied. Said he to his two servants: "See ye what I see? " No," they answered. [Midrash Rabbah , Genesis 56:1-2)
Since the servants saw only the mountain, the physical reality, and not the cloud which represents the metaphysical, Abraham tells them to stay behind with the donkey. (Interestingly, the Hebrew world for "donkey," chamor, is related to the word for "physical," chomer.) Only Abraham and Isaac see the cloud tied to the mountain, and only they will continue the spiritual journey.
Elsewhere in the Midrash, Abraham is described as one of three people who "rides" on a donkey. The other two are Moses and the Messiah. The description of the coming of the Messiah in the writings of Prophet Zechariah is also of a man riding on a donkey; and there are two possible scenarios of the coming of the Messiah reported in the Talmud:
R'Alexandri said: "R'Joshua ben Levi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, 'In its time [will be the coming of the Messiah]', whilst it is also written, 'I [the Lord] will hasten it! If they are worthy, I will hasten it: if not, at the due time.' ... It is [also] written, 'And behold, one like the son of man comes with the clouds of heaven', whilst [elsewhere] it is written, 'lowly, and riding upon a donkey!' If they are worthy, [he will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon a donkey." [Sanhedrin 98a]
Either with clouds or on a donkey; either sooner or later. The choice is ours. The Zohar explains that the role of the Messiah is to ride on the donkey, chamor, and to subdue the chomer, the physical:
R'Jose said that those of the right are all merged in one called "donkey", and that is the donkey of which it is written, 'thou shalt not plough with an ox and a donkey together' [Deuteronomy 22:10], and that is also the donkey which the King Messiah shall control, as we have explained. [Zohar, Bamidbar, 3:207a]
In Jewish thought, there is ideally no tension between the physical world and the spiritual world. The physical is to be elevated and used in spiritual contexts. The physical is a means toward an end. The tragic error of so many people and nations is that they have seen the physical as an end unto itself. Therefore, the Messiah is described as the one who rides on top of -- i.e. subdues -- the physical, and thus ushers in the Messianic Age.
Abraham knew how to subdue the physical. Both he and Isaac saw the cloud and ascended Mount Moriah. They were in touch with something beyond the physical.
This was also true for Sarah and Rebecca. We recall they had a cloud tied to their tent. They, too, had a metaphysical experience, not on a mountain top, but within their own tents. They too, despite living in a physical world, were connected to the spiritual one.
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were equals -- all of them spiritual giants.