Parshat Chayei Sarah
"'The sun rises and the sun goes down' (Kohelet, i, 5) – Said R. Abba bar Kahane: Do we not know that the sun rises and goes down?! Rather, before Hakadosh Baruch Hu makes the sun of one righteous person set, He has the sun of another righteous person rise. Before He made Sarah's sun set, He had Rivkah's sun rise. It first states (end of Parshat Veyera, xxvi, 22) 'Behold Milkah has also born children to Nachor your brother…and Betuel fathered Rivkah,' and afterwards, 'And the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years'" (Beraishit Rabbah 58:2). The Midrash proceeds to offer additional examples: "Before Moshe's sun had set Yehoshua's sun rose, as it states, 'And Hashem said to Moshe: Take for yourself Yehoshua son of Nun.' Before Yehoshua's sun had set Otniel ben Kenaz's sun rose; Before Eli's sun had set Shmuel's sun rose, as it states: 'And the lamp of G-d was not yet extinguished, and Shmuel had laid down to sleep in the sanctuary of Hashem.'"
The Midrash teaches us that there is a Divine order to the leadership of the Israelite nation. This order is continuous – when one leader concludes his service the sun of the next has already risen. Undoubtedly it is no coincidence that Yehoshua followed Moshe, or that Rivkah came after Sarah. Chazal teach us (Yoma 38b): "Hakadosh baruch Hu foresaw that the righteous would be few and therefore He spread them over the generations." Each generation receives the appropriate righteous person for the leadership of that generation according to its character and the events that will occur in the generation.
Usually the transfer of power from one generation to another involves father and son, or one leader to his successor – both males. Our Parsha is unique in that it tells us of the trans-generational passage between a woman and her daughter-in-law, Sarah and Rivkah. Women are not typically found "front-stage," but behind the scenes. Our Parsha, however, places women in the spotlight. We will attempt to understand a little of the ways of women through our Parsha.
The Torah begins: "And the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years" (xxiii, 1). R. Hirsch points out that this is the only place in the entire Tenach where a woman's years are summed up. He adds: "It might be said that the reason for this is that a woman's life is distant from public events, and the number of her years does not help us determine the order of the generational years and their events." Apparently there is something special about Sarah's years and death that we must learn.
At the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha the Torah relates: "And Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son, and all the possessions they had acquired, and the souls they had made in Charan" (xii, 5). Rashi explains: " 'and the souls they had made in Charan' – who they gathered in under the wings of the Shechinah; Avraham would convert the men, while Sarah would convert the women." Avraham and Sarah establish a new spiritual movement. They set out and spread the faith in one G-d, working as a team – Avraham the men, and Sarah the women. The conspicuous leading figure of this movement is Avraham: "And Avram went as Hashem spoke to him…" (4); "And Avram took Sarai his wife…" Yet the pasuk continues by saying, "and they left to go to the Land of Cana'an, and they arrived at the Land of Cana'an" – in the plural rather than the singular. This shows that Sarah, despite her activities and the Torah's emphasis that they both left and arrived at the Land of Cana'an, nonetheless remained hidden. It is the way of man to go out to the market squares and air his opinions. The woman's influence, however, is not displayed by noisy imposition but through modesty and the shining of the internal riches of her spiritual world. We find the same by the angels who came to visit Avraham. They ask: "And they said to him: Where is Sarah your wife? And he said: Behold, in the tent" (xviii, 9). Rashi provides Chazal's explanation: "The ministering angels knew where our mother Sarah was, but they wanted to draw attention to her modesty, to increase her husband's affection for her." Regarding Avraham's answer Rashi explains: " 'Behold, in the tent' – she is modest."
We encounter the same tent by Ravka. In our Parsha it states: "And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother; and he took Rivkah and she became for him a wife, and he loved her, and Yitzchak was comforted after his mother." Rashi explains: " 'And he brought her to the tent' – and she was Sarah his mother, meaning she became similar to Sarah his mother, for all the time Sarah was alive there was a candle burning from one Shabbat eve to the other, the dough was blessed, and a cloud hung over the tent. When she died these ceased, but on Rivkah's arrival they returned." The Shem MeShmuel explains, based on the Ramban, that the fathers' tents secretly served as Hashem's place in the world, and the later Mishkan was modeled on that of the fathers. The three things found in the tents of Sarah and Rivkah have their parallel in the Mishkan. The western light of the menorah was miraculously lit – it was used to light the others and yet lasted the longest. Likewise, the showbread was "fresh bread, as on the day it was baked," for a blessing was placed in the showbread. In the commandment regarding the Mishkan it states: "And they shall make for me a Mishkan and I shall dwell amongst them" (Shemot, xxv, 8). Am Yisrael must construct the vessel, the framework in which the name of Hashem shall reside. Since they build the house, Hakadosh Baruch Hu dwells not merely in the house (Mishkan) but also amongst us, amongst all of us – "and I shall dwell amongst them." Hashem's revelation in the Mishkan is expressed in a cloud over the Mishkan, and all reality is blessed through this – in both its spiritual (the candle) and material (the blessing in the bread) aspects.
The tent of Sarah and Rivkah is a kind of Mishkan. Through the building of the concealing and hidden tent, which allows for an internal and modest existence, the spiritual and material realities are thereby blessed. This blessing is found in the tents of the mothers and not the tents of the fathers, since the woman's influence comes from her inner side, from her modesty, in contrast to the more outwardly directed man. When Eliezer returns from his mission he tells Yitzchak "all the things he had done" (xxiv, 66). Rashi says: "He told him of the miracles that had been performed for him, that the way had been shortened for him and Rivkah had appeared after his prayer." One would have thought that this would be enough to persuade Yitzchak to take Rivkah for a wife. After all, "the matter has come from Hashem." Nonetheless, Yitzchak first brings Rivkah to Sarah's tent. He examines her as to whether she is a suitable mother of Israel. Only once it is clear that Rivkah is continuing Sarah's way, then "and he took Rivkah and she became for him a wife, and he loved her."
The force that expands from the tent outwards and blesses and raises all life is already found with Rivkah in her youth. When Eliezer meets Rivkah, the Torah tells us, "and the young girl was very beautiful, a virgin, no one had known her" (xxiv, 16). Rashi explains (based on Midrash Rabbah): " 'A virgin' – from the place of virginity; 'no one had known her' – in an unnatural manner. Since gentile girls would preserve their virginity while making themselves available from another place, [Scripture] testifies regarding this one that she was entirely clean."
Rivkah possessed internal, authentic modesty, unlike others who display themselves as modest while they are really quite otherwise. The Midrash continues: "Since it says 'a virgin,' do we not know that no one knew her?! Rather, no one had even requested her." This is astonishing. Rivkah is described as very beautiful, and yet no one requested her? Yet since Rivkah's essence was modesty, she exuded pure truth, so that no one had requested her. There is no question that the special influence of Sarah and Rivkah did not result from philosophical debates or analytical proofs. Their influence results from the woman's living her faith in truth. Hence this faith naturally extends to others. This is a wonderful level of a natural and flowing connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We find this upright and pure nature, which flows naturally, in a number of episodes involving Sarah and Rivkah. Both take care that the covenant Hashem made with Avraham should pass over to the right person, Yitzchak and Yaakov respectively. This was carried out through a healthy and authentic motherly feeling. Hence Sarah demands that Yishmael be banished, and Rivkah arranges things so that Yaakov should receive the blessing rather than Eisav. Avraham and Yitzchak, the men, might have had trouble with this, and thus the fitting combination between man and wife successfully leads Am Yisrael on the true path.
In our Parsha we find two cases that express the naturally upright nature of woman. It says by us: "And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her" (3). The Midrash Rabbah asks (58:5): "Where did he come from? He came from Mount Moriah, and Sarah died from that grief (through Satan, who told her of that incident – Etz Yosef), and therefore the Akeidah is placed next to 'And the life of Sarah.'" The question is raised: could Sarah really have thought that Avraham had decided to slaughter Yitzchak for no reason? He must have been acting by Hashem's command! So then why did her soul leave her? By Avraham it states: "And Avraham rose early in the morning," and Rashi explains: "he hurried himself for the mitzvah." Why is Sarah unable to withstand the test like Avraham? It can be suggested that Hakadosh Baruch Hu never really meant that Avraham should slaughter Yitzchak; it was Avraham who understood Hakadosh Baruch Hu's command, "raise him up as a sacrifice," in that manner (although of course Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted him to understand it like that, otherwise there would be no test). Sarah, however, through her internal feminine intuition, was convinced that Hakadosh Baruch Hu could not have commanded Yitzchak to be slaughtered, and therefore when she heard that Yitzchak had been bound, her soul departed her.
By Rivkah too we find a natural and upright sense already in her youth. Lavan and her mother say to Eliezer: "We call the young girl, and ask her opinion" (xxiv, 57). Their intention was to delay Rivkah's departure with Eliezer. After all, she is a little girl and would not want to accompany a strange man to a distant land. She would not want to break away from her mother and the rest of her family. Yet Rivkah's answer is short and unequivocal: "I will go." Rivkah senses that accompanying Eliezer will help her live a true life, one that will express her upright and pure qualities. Hence she is prepared to leave with Eliezer without hesitation.
Over the generations the practical tasks of women have received various and occasionally contradictory forms and guised. Yet we must hope that the women of Israel will always know to connect their modesty to their natural, upright qualities, and thus to help the nation march forward on its Divine path.
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