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PARSHAT CHAYE SARAH

THE F IR ST MATRI AR CH
Ra bbi Ar i khan

Parshat Chaye Sarah marks the transition of Matriarchs, from Sarah to Rivka. A great deal
of the narrative is devoted to the death and burial of Sarah on the one hand, and the
search for wife for Yitzchak on the other. Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovietchik Zatza”l once noted
that without Sarah “Avraham takes leave of the world stage”. Despite Avraham’s relative
longevity, subsequent to Sarah’s demise, Avraham seems to disappear. He ceases to be a
major player; the mantle of leadership passes to Yitzchak--and Rivka. Avraham and
Sarah were apparently complete partners, and therefore the death of the one causes the
focus to be removed from the other. Avraham was keenly aware of this partnership.
Hence, as soon as the burial and mourning period ended, a replacement for Sarah was
sought.

The fact that Avraham and Sarah were indeed partners can be discerned from the very
outset. In Lech Lecha, we are told that when Avraham and Sarah headed towards the
Land of Canaan, they came with “the nefesh which they made in Charan” which is
understood as the people whom they converted while in Charan. Rashi explains:

the people which they brought close to the Presence of G-d, Avraham converted
the men and Sarah converted the women.

Avraham and Sarah were equals, each working in his or her own realm.

This observation gives us some insight into the spiritual greatness of the Patriarchs and
the Matriarchs. Upon Sarah’s death, Avraham eulogizes Sarah, explaining to the world
who this woman was and what had been lost with her death. Who was Sarah? She was
obviously more than just the woman who prepared the cakes and meals for Avraham’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
Chapter XVI of B’reishit as an Egyptian servant of Sarah. The Midrash (cited by Rashi)
gives us some biographical information about Hagar:

R. Simeon b. 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’; thus it is written, AND SHE HAD A HANDMAID, AN EGYPTIAN,
WHOSE NAME WAS HAGAR, (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XLV:1)

Hagar was royalty. She was an aristocrat. When it became apparent to Sarah that she
would be unable to bear children, she sought an appropriate partner for Avraham, 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 Avraham was to
have a child, that child must be the greatest child possible. In an act of complete self-
sacrifice, Sarah invites the beautiful Egyptian princess to become a partner with her
husband.

AND SARAI ABRAM'S WIFE TOOK HAGAR THE EGYPTIAN. (XVI, 3). She persuaded
[took] her with words: ' Happy art thou to be united to so holy a man,’ she urged
(Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XLV:3)

Hagar, who had been the primary disciple of Sarah, becomes pregnant and bears a child.
Her conclusion is that G-d has now favored her, and not Sarah; that Sarah was an
unworthy partner for Abraham. She begins to conduct herself as the wife.

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. Avraham’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 Avraham’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 Avraham’s nascent
movement.

Hagar’s mistake was in assuming that Avraham 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 Avraham 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, not out of jealousy. Sarah
understands that she and Avraham are partners and equals. At the point where Hagar
gets carried away, Sarah informs Avraham it is time to send Hagar away. Avraham finds
it quite difficult. But, of course, Sarah was right. G-d said to Avraham;

“Whatever Sarah your wife says you shall listen” (Gen 21:12)

The partnership was between the two of them. Without Sarah, there cannot be an
Avraham. The covenantal community requires two leaders, a man and a woman,
Avraham and Sarah.

We can further appreciate the greatness of Sarah by exploring a second passage in the
Midrash (Midrash Rabbah-Genesis LX:16), cited by Rashi to explain the verse at the end
of our Parsha:

“And Isaac brought her [Rivka] to the tent of his mother [Sarah]. He took Rivka
and she became a wife to him. And he loved her. And she comforted him after his
mother.” (24:67)

Rashi explains,

He brought her to the tent. As long as his mother 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 Rivka
entered the tent, all these phenomena returned.

This reference to “a cloud tied to her tent” is obscure. This is its only usage in Midrash.
There is, however, one time that a cloud is tied to something else--a mountain. We recall
the discussion between Avraham and Yitzchak as they headed toward the Akaida.
Avraham looked up and saw a mountain with a peculiar cloud tied to the mountain.
Yitzchak shared this vision, but the others who accompanied them saw only the
mountain.

AND SAW THE PLACE AFAR OFF (ib.). What did he see? He 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 [Yitzchak]: ‘Yitzchak, my
son, seest thou what I see?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. Said he to his two servants: ' See ye
what I see? ' ' No,’ they answered. Since ye do not see it, ABIDE YE HERE WITH THE
ASS,’ (XXII, 5) (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:1,2)

Since they saw only the mountain, the physical reality, and not the cloud which
represents the metaphysical, Avraham tells them to remain with the chamor (donkey)--
the word “chamor” comes from the word “chomer”, physical. Only Avraham and Yitzchak
see the cloud tied to the mountain, and only they will continue the spiritual journey up
the mountain. This cloud tied to the mountain makes its only appearance in the
Midrashic literature with regard to Avraham and Yitzchak; no one else ever sees such a
cloud. Avraham is described in the Midrash as one of three people who rides on a
donkey: rochev al ha chamor. The other two are Moshe and the Messiah. The
description of the coming of the Messiah in Zechariah is that of a poor man riding on a
donkey. There are two possible scenarios of the coming of the Messiah reported in the
Talmud:

R. Alexandri said: R. Joshua b. Levi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, ‘In its
time [will the Messiah come]’, whilst it is also written, ‘I [the Lord] will hasten it!’ If
they are worthy, I will hasten it: if not, [he will come] at the due time. R. Alexandri
said: R. Joshua opposed two verses: It is written, ‘And behold, one like the son of
man came with the clouds of heaven’, whilst [elsewhere] it is written, ‘[Behold, thy
king cometh unto thee . . . ] lowly, and riding upon an ass!’ If they are meritorious,
[he will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.
(Sanhedrin 98a)

Either 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 chamor, to subdue the physical.

R. Yosi 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” (Deut. XXII, 10), and that is also the donkey which the King Messiah shall
control, as we have explained. (Zohar, Bemidbar, Section 3, Page 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 the chamor/the physical, subdues the physical, and thus ushers in the
Messianic Age. Avraham, who knows how to subdue the physical, transcends the physical
and ascends the mountain. Avraham and Yitzchak see the cloud. They are in touch with
something beyond the physical. The two men who are with them can see only the
mountain, the physical, and must therefore remain behind with the chamor.

The case of the Matriarchs is similar. Although the Akeida is the only reference to a cloud
tied to a mountain, we recall that Sarah and Rivka also had a cloud tied to their tent.
They, too, had a metaphysical experience, but within their own tents. They too, despite
living in a physical world, were tied or connected to the spiritual one. Avraham and
Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka were equals—all of them, spiritual giants.

But what was the specific greatness of Sarah? We are told that Sarah died at the age of
127. Rashi comments, based on the Midrash, that when she was 100, she was like a 20-
year-old regarding sin: Just as a 20-year-old is free of sin, for until the age of 20 one is not
held responsible for his actions, so, too, was Sarah 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.
Here, the Midrash seems somewhat difficult: If anything, it should have been the other
way around: As sinless as a 7-year-old and as beautiful as a 20-year-old. R. Shimshon
Rafael Hirsch explained that in truth, a 7-year-old is quite beautiful—perhaps not in a
sexual or sensual sense, but a 7-year-old is indeed beautiful, the beauty of a child.
Perhaps we would have thought that the idea of sinlessness should have been more
appropriate for the 7-year-old than for the 20-year-old. But Rabbi Hirsch points out that
the 7-year-old simply does not have the opportunity to sin in the manner that an adult of
20 years does.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zatza”l explained1 that the greatness of Sarah and her role
within the covenantal community can be culled from the words of Rashi: 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. Rashi
comments,

shnei chaye Sarah: all were equal for the good.(Rashi 23:1)

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.2 In order for a person to pray, he needs
to feel that G-d is really listening. Adults often become cynical and lose the ability to
stand before G-d 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 G-d 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 can change the world. He feels that he 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. Similarly, Rivka even at a

1
See Rabbi Abraham Besdin “Man of Faith in the Modern world – Reflections of the Rov” volume 2 page 83ff
2
This is still the idea of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zatza”l, however in Rabbi Besdin’s book
the idea is somewhat truncated (compared to Rav Soloviechik’s lecture when he discussed this
idea).
tender age was able to transcend her station and relate as a person far beyond her
years.3

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.

3
This was observed by my Chevruta, Shlomo Simkin