Chayei Sarah: Staying Inspired in Hidden Times
"And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah."
The Medrash in Bereishis Rabbah tells us a story related to this pasuk. As Rav Akiva was delivering his shiur, he noticed that his talmidim were falling asleep. In order to arouse his talmidim, Rav Akiva asked the following question: Why did Esther merit to reign over 127 countries?
Rav Akiva answered that it was in the merit of her grandmother, Sarah, who lived for 127 years that Esther was privileged to reign over 127 countries. With this question and answer Rav Akiva successfully awoke his talmidim.
This Medrash evokes several questions -
1. Sarah Imeinu led an important life with many great achievements. Her age doesn't seem to be anything remarkable. What's the inner connection between Sarah's age and Esther meriting to rule over 127 countries?
2. How could the talmidim of Rav Akiva have been falling asleep in shiur? Was Rav Akiva’s shiur boring, chas vishalom? And even if it was boring (it wasn't) why would an entire shiur be falling asleep? It is understandable if one or two talmidim didn't get enough sleep the night before and so they found themselves dozing off, but what could cause an entire shiur to fall asleep? Bear in mind that these talmidim were no ordinary students. To be called a talmid of Rav Akiva is a mark of distinction.
3. How does Rav Akivas question and answer successfully arouse his talmidim? While it's true that a good question gets the juices flowing it seems that Rav Akiva had a specific message for the shiur. What was the lesson Rav Akiva was imparting?
The Connection Between Sarah and Esther
There are many connections between Sarah Imeinu and Esther HaMalkah. As we have already mentioned, Sarah lives for 127 years and Esther ruled over 127 countries but as we delve deeper we see that there is so much more right beneath the surface.
Here are some similarities:
- Both Sarah and Esther were prophets (Sarah the first female prophet and Esther the last).
- Both Sarah and Esther are described as beautiful. In fact, the Gemara tells us that they are listed as two of the four most beautiful women the world has ever seen.
- Both of their names represent royalty - the name Sarah means Princess and Esther became the Royal Queen of Persia.
- Both Sarah and Esther were taken by Gentile Kings and kept their true identity concealed until they were ultimately discovered.
- Sarah is the first Jewish woman we find described in the Torah and Esther is the last.
But interestingly we find some important differences between Sarah and Esther as well.
- The name Esther means hidden while Sarah's original name in the Torah is Yiscah which means to see.
- The names Yiscah and Sarah should be viewed through the prism of the time and place in which both women lived.
Sarah Imeinu (Yiscah) lived in Eretz Yisrael a place where God presence is more revealed. She lived in a time where Malachim visited her and God's communication was clear.
In contrast Esther lived in Golus. Meggilas Esther doesn't mention the name of Hashem. God's presence is concealed and in the climax of the story Esther cries out "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?"
There is clearly a connection between Sarah Imeinu and Esther HaMalkah but they also seem to differ as well. How can this be understood?
Times of Plenty and Times of Famine
Sometimes in life we are gifted with a sense of clarity. We "see" God in our lives and we understand the purpose for which we are created. In those times, it is easy to be passionate and we can live life with a sense of vibrancy, enthusiasm and excitement, where every moment is an opportunity to unlock the secrets of creation. Contrarily, there are times when God seems to be hidden from us. In these moments life seems meaningless and disappointing. We live with a sense of lethargy and despair. The days seem to be never ending and we wonder what we are doing with our lives.
What gives us the strength to carry on when God seems hidden from us?
What is seemingly the key point which we must open our hearts up to, is the knowledge that we didn't always feel this way. We can remember the times when God's presence was as clear as day and we can draw sustenance from those wellsprings. Maybe today I feel as though God is removed from my life, but I will never forget the value my life held, the excitement I felt when I was deeply connected to Him. In times of plenty we must put away for the years of famine. We know that it is an unreasonable expectation to constantly live as if we are on fire. Life simply does not work that way. However, when we do experience times of connectivity, we must draw those experiences in so that their imprint will last for many years to come.
I will never forget a time in my life when my davening was elevated to an entirely new dimension. I had returned from an inspiring Shabbos in Tzfat and for the next couple of months, every Teffilah felt like Neilah on Yom Kippur. But, as time went by, I began to feel the passion ebbing away. I called my Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Parnes שליט"א, to ask him for advice as to how I could keep my flame burning and I'll never forget what he told me. “It's not reasonable to expect that you will always daven this way. Take this experience in because once you do it will never leave you. You may not daven this way in a couple of months from now but you will always be able to draw from this experience.” My Rebbe relayed to me that he could still remember the passion he had for Yiddishkeit one summer in camp when he was a young teenager. Although it had been more than seventy years since that experience, he could still feel the enthusiasm deep inside his core.
Sarah Imeinu was born Yiscah. She saw Hashem clearly in this world. Open miracles were part of her life. Hashem’s name was clearly written into the fabric of her every day experiences. This is what it means to live in Eretz Yisrael. She lived for 127 years this way - deeply passionate about every moment of every day. Sarah shares many commonalities with Esther HaMalkah. Two beautiful, royal women who were deeply connected to Hashem, they even had similar life experiences. Sarah Imeinu is the first Jewish woman described in Tanach and Esther is the last. They lived in very different times. For Esther living in Golus means God is hidden in her life. God's plan is unknown and His presence is unfelt. But Esther rules over her world because the experience of Sarah Imeinu is embedded in her soul. Every moment of Sarah Imeinu's 127 years was an investment that wouldn't come due until 900 years later when her granddaughter felt abandoned by God, trapped in the palace of a Gentile King. As Esther rules over 127 countries, she draws strength from a time when God's name is written clearly in the Torah. Sarah came from a time when Malachim came and announced in no uncertain terms that there would be a miraculous deliverance from the jaws of despair. Esther did not have those angels, only the memory of time when they spoke to her grandmother. And for her that was enough to rule.
The Lesson of Rav Akiva
Rav Akiva and his talmidim lived through the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. They lived in a time period where they experienced open miracles all around them and in a time where God's presence seemingly disappeared. One can only imagine the pain they felt as they could no longer feel God's loving embrace. Rav Akiva sensed the despair his talmidim were experiencing. He saw that they were "falling asleep." Chazal tell us the sleep is one sixtieth of death. Life simply didn't have the same meaning as it used to. And, he asked them a question and gave them an answer to awaken their spirits. How did Esther HaMalkah merit to rule the world? How did she live as a Queen in a palace, separated from her family, hiding the truth of her origins? How did she rule and not despair? She drew strength from her grandmother Sarah. Every moment of Sarah's 127 years of living with God imbued strength in her granddaughter to live with God as well. Sarah Imeinu stored her strength away for times of famine and Esther collected all those years later. This was the message Rav Akiva gave to his talmidim: You can remember a time when it wasn't so dark in the world. It wasn't that long ago that we saw the Kohanim bringing korbanos and the Leviim singing songs of Praise to Hashem. Draw strength from those years of plenty as Esther did from Sarah and in this way we can stay awake through the long dark nights of golus. The memory of God's embrace allows us to feel held when we can no longer go home.
May it be God's will that this time of concealment draw speedily to a close but in the meantime let us draw strength from our Matriarch Sarah who imbued in all of us a sense of hope for a time when God will once again be revealed in this world.