Our Mother, Sarah

The Journey to Unity - 63

Our Mother, Sarah:

The following are the opening verses of the Torah portion which we read this Shabbos:

"Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah's life. Sarah died in Kiryas Arba, which is in Chevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her." (Genesis 23:1,2)

Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that all the people of the city stopped their work and came to hear the eulogy, in order to pay their last respects to Sarah (Commentary to Genesis 23:10). She was beloved by all the people, for her life was devoted to "tzedek" - the higher and loving Divine justice which "entitles" each creature to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation.

Dear Friends,

There is a custom at the Friday night Shabbos table to sing the ancient hymn known as "Eshes Chayil" - A Woman of Valor - which is found in the concluding chapter of the Book of Proverbs. The Midrash cites a tradition that it was composed by Avraham as an eulogy to Sarah, and it later became part of the Book of Proverbs (Midrash Tanchuma on Genesis 24:1). Within this eulogy to Sarah, we find the following words of praise:

"She spreads out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute." (Proverbs 31:20)

To the poor who approach her for help, she lovingly "spreads out her palm" and gives them what they need. The "destitute" are in a worse economic condition, and she therefore doesn't wait to for them to approach her. With wisdom and discretion, she takes the initiative, and "extends her hands to the destitute" (commentary of the ArtScroll Siddur). Sarah was therefore devoted to "tzedakah" - deeds which express the tzedek ideal.

The Midrash teaches that the doors of Sarah's tent "were open wide" - a metaphor for her warm hospitality; moreover, "a blessing was bestowed upon her dough" (Genesis Rabbah 60:16). In his commentary on this Midrash, the Tiferes Zion, a 20th century sage of Jerusalem, explains that the "blessing" on her dough means that she was able to feed all the needy guests; there was always enough for everyone.

In Sarah's tent, adds the Midrash, "a lamp burned from the eve of one Shabbos to the eve of the following Shabbos." The "light" from her Shabbos lamp lasted all week until the arrival of the following Shabbos. Is there a relationship between the continuous light of Sarah's Shabbos lamp and the deeds of tzedakah that she performed? The beginning of an answer can be found in the following teaching of our sages regarding the light that will shine on the People of Israel in the messianic age:

"In the future, the nations will be drawn to your light, as it says, 'And nations will walk by your light' (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will shine upon Israel? It is the light of tzedakah, as it says, 'But to you who are in awe of My name, the sun of tzedakah will shine' (Malachi 3:20). And why did they merit this? It is in the merit of the lamps that they lit for Shabbos." (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8)

The Midrash cites the prophetic promise that we, the People of Israel, will develop a caring society which will reflect "the light of tzedakah"; moreover, the nations will be drawn to this light. This great achievement, states the Midrash, is the result of our lighting the Shabbos lamps!

How do the Shabbos lamps lead to the "light of tzedakah"? When there is no light, we cannot see each other. As it is written regarding the plague of darkness which struck the Egyptians, "No man could see his brother" (Exodus 10:23). Just as the total darkness of night prevents us from seeing each other, so too, the total darkness of selfishness prevents us from "seeing" each other. For a selfish person is only able to see himself. According to a Chassidic sage, known as the Chidushei Ha-Rim, the above verse alludes to the darkness of selfishness which plagued the Egyptians. He writes:

"The worst darkness is when one person does not want to see his suffering brother and extend to him assistance." (May'nah Shel Torah, Vol. 2).

The lamps that we light each Shabbos are to inspire us to truly see others - to recognize their purpose within the creation and to see what they need in order to fulfill their purpose. The light of Sarah's Shabbos lamp burned continuously from one Shabbos to another, and throughout the week people were able to see each other and help each other. The light of her Shabbos lamps therefore led to the light of tzedakah. All who came under her influence abandoned the darkness of selfishness, for they were drawn to the continous light of her loving teachings.

The Midrash describing Sarah's Tent mentions one more unique quality: "A cloud hovered over the entrance to her tent." In biblical and rabbinic terminology, the hovering "cloud" represents the Shechinah - the Divine Presence that seeks to dwell with us on earth. (For an example, see Exodus 40:34, and the translation of Targum Yonason.)

Why was the Shechinah drawn to Sarah's tent? Sarah's good deeds expressed the spirit of the Shechinah, and the Ramban cites the mystical teaching that a name of the Shechinah is "Tzedek" (Commentary to Genesis 14:18). The Shechinah represents the tzedek ideal whereby every creature on earth is entitled to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation. The Shechinah, Whose name is "Tzedek," therefore dwelled within Sarah's tent, for all her deeds were in the spirit of tzedek. She developed a home which was open to all in need, she shared her bread with the hungry, and through the "light" of her continuously burning Shabbos lamp, people were able to truly "see" each other all the days of the week.

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. When Isaac, the son of Avraham and Sarah, married Rebecca, the Torah states that he first brought Rebecca into his mother's tent: "And Isaac brought her into the tent, Sarah, his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother." (Genesis 24:67). Instead of saying, "Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother," the verse states, "Isaac brought her into the tent, Sarah, his mother"; thus, Rashi explains this verse in the following manner: "And he brought her into the tent, and behold, she was 'Sarah, his mother'! This is to say that she became the image of Sarah, his mother. For all the time that Sarah was alive, a lamp would be alight continuously from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, and a blessing would be found in the dough; moreover, a cloud would be stationed over the tent. But once she died, these happenings stopped. And when Rebecca came, they returned!" (Based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah)

2. Sarah's tent became a model for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For example, Sarah's tent was open to all the women of her generation who were seeking spiritual nourishment, and the Temple was open to all those who were seeking spiritual nourishment. In addition, the 12 loaves of the Temple show-bread were blessed and remained fresh from Shabbos to Shabbos; moreover, there was a continuous light from the western lamp of the Menorah, and the Shechinah dwelled within. These special qualities of the Temple served as a reminder that our spiritual life in the Land of Israel is to be modeled after the spiritual life which flourished in Sarah's tent. (These insights are based on the ArtScroll Overview to Parshas Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. )

3. When the Gentile Prophet Balaam was told by the Compassionate One to bless the People of Israel, Balaam said, "I see it from the summit of the rocks, and from the hills do I view it" (Numbers 23:9). According to Midrash Tanchuma, the metaphor "rocks" refers to our Patriarchs, and the metaphor "hills" refers to our Matriarchs. Rashi therefore offers the following interpretation of Balaam's statement: "I look at their origin and at the beginning of their roots, and I see them entrenched and strong as these rocks and hills, by means of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs." Thanks to the teachings and deeds of Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the teachings and deeds of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we are a people with strong spiritual roots.

4. It is written: "Listen to me, pursuers of tzedek, seekers of the Compassionate One... Look to Avraham, your father, and to Sarah, who will give birth to you" (Isaiah 51:1,2 - Rashi's translation). The Prophet is urging Jewish spiritual seekers in each generation to return to their own roots - to the teachings of Avraham and Sarah. The phrase "Sarah, who will give birth to you" alludes to the future age when we will be reborn as a people that will be fully devoted to the tzedek ideal which Avraham and Sarah taught and lived. The idea that we will be a reborn people is found in the following biblical phrase concerning the messianic age: "the newborn people that He has formed" (Psalm 22:32).

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