by Rebbetzin Leah Kohn
* * *
A superficial glance at the Torah might suggest that Abraham was the
central figure in early Judaism and that Sarah was his sidekick. Yet
Jewish sources (see Rashi and other commentaries on Genesis 16:2;
Bereishit Rabbah 39:15, 41:2, 60:15; and many other references in the
Talmud, Midrash, and later texts) reveal that she was in fact a full
partner and a woman of great insight and influence who developed a
particularly close and deep relationship with God.
The matriarchs and patriarchs are compared to the roots of a tree;
they established the foundation for us. In fact, tradition tells us
that everything that happened to them has a parallel within our
history. Just as everything the tree becomes has its source in the
roots, so everything the Jewish nation becomes and is has its source
in the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs.
Therefore, when faced with a challenge, we are able to examine how
they handled adversity and try to emulate their ways. Their examples
remain a source of strength for all generations.
In examining the life of Sarah, one must (as always) keep in mind that
the Torah is not a history book; rather, it is a guide for life and
therefore shares only those events that are important for our
Interestingly, the longest discourse about Sarah concerns her death
and burial. Such detailed treatment of this subject is unique in
Jewish text; it is even surprising in this case because there is a
great deal to tell about Sarah's life (for example, the fact that she
brought tens of thousands to monotheism) that the written Torah
doesn't tell us about. However, it is this passage that unlocks the
essence of her greatness.
Jewish law is explicit about proper burial practices. These rituals
emphasize respect for the body, because the body is the tool we use in
our lifetimes to accomplish our missions in the world. Sarah mastered
the use of her body as an instrument of spirituality. That the Torah
goes to great lengths in recounting Abraham's negotiation and purchase
of the site where her body would rest signifies its perfect
utilization in her lifetime.
This accomplishment is also apparent from another incident written
about Sarah's life: her experience in Egypt. Taken captive by Pharaoh,
her test was overwhelming. She found herself at Pharaohs side, with
access to what was then the worlds most advanced, alluring, and
cultured civilization, yet at the same time paganistic and immoral.
Throughout this test, Sarah remained unaffected in body, mind, and
spirit. She did not let the surrounding materialism dominate her;
rather, she had pity for the individuals who had access to such an
array of resources but didn't utilize them for the right purpose.
Sarah's unwavering commitment to sanctifying every aspect of life
remains a Jews central purpose to this day, and Sarah is the role
model for fulfilling this goal. She did not differentiate between
mundane and holy. She elevated the mundane and made it holy. Sarah
utilized everything and every action in life to enhance her
relationship with God, even in the midst of the most challenging
In recognition of her ability to transform the earthly realm into a
dwelling place for the Divine, God bestowed Sarah's home with three
miracles. Her Shabbat candles burned all week long, her challah
(bread) was blessed with a Divine satiating quality, and the Presence
of God hung over her tent in the form of a cloud. Each of these
physical manifestations had its counterpart in later Jewish history
and has a spiritual significance that remains a force in our lives
Our Shabbat candles burn for only a few hours, leaving us without
their unique light for the rest of the week. Six days a week we are
busy working and providing for our basic needs. The Shabbat candles
mark a departure from this routine, ushering in a singular day of
focused connection to God.
For Sarah, there was no such separation between holy and mundane. Her
clarity did not ebb and flow with the coming and going of Shabbat, and
so symbolically her candles burned from one Shabbat to the next. In
much the same way, one of the lamps on the Menorah in the Temple never
burned out. This suspension of natural law indicated that God had
deemed the Temple fitting for His Presence. Sarah was the first to
usher God into the physical world in this fashion.
Sarah's challah also expressed how she redefined the boundaries of the
physical world by infusing it with spirituality. God embedded a
blessing in her challah, which caused it to be completely satisfying
no matter how little a guest ate. This bypassed the laws of nature and
gave way to a more expansive sense of the physical realms ultimate,
unlimited source. By giving the challah spiritual characteristics, God
acknowledged Sarah's ability to use material existence as a pipeline
to the Divine. Later in Jewish history, the bread baked in the Temple
remained miraculously fresh throughout the week. This was Gods
indication that the legacy of spirituality established by Sarah had
The third miracle in Sarah's midst - the cloud of the Divine Presence
that hovered over her home - was a clear visual link between Heaven
and earth. Regardless of time of day or change in weather, it
persisted as proof of a spiritual domain beyond the five senses. This
Divine cloud was present because Sarah sanctified every aspect of
physical life, a concept also symbolized by (among other things)
Sarah's observance of the laws of mikveh, thus infusing her physical
body with spirituality. A symbol of Gods Presence, the cloud
reappeared at key points in the development of the Jewish nation as a
protective force for the generation in the desert and as a sign of the
Divine Presence at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
We no longer live in an era of open miracles such as those fostered by
Sarah or those that were present at the Temple. Yet the mitzvot of
candle lighting, taking challah (which entails separating a small
piece from a certain amount of bread dough and destroying it to
symbolize the challah gift that was required to be given to the priest
in the Temple era), and mikveh indicate our desire to elevate the
physical world and make it spiritual.
Furthermore, each time we use the physical for a higher purpose, we
create in ourselves a dwelling place for God. In this way, physicality
never becomes an end unto itself. Rather, for the Jew, this world
remains a place where the mundane and routine present opportunities to
connect to our Source. This task is a challenge, especially when taken
on in the midst of a consumer society that overwhelms us with
materialistic messages. As Jewish women, we have the potential to walk
the path of Sarah, transforming and infusing meaning into every
physical aspect of our existence, each in our own way, on our own
time, step by step.
REBBETZIN LEAH KOHN is co-founder and director of the Jewish
Renaissance Center in Manhattan, for Jewish women with little or no
background who wish to learn about Judaism.
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(C) 2005 InnerNet Magazine
Reprinted with permission from JEWISH WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT JEWISHMATTERS
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