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Sarah: Finding Spirituality in the Mundane
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 spiritual growth.

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 circumstances.

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 today.

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 endured.

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.


InnerNet Magazine is published monthly as an on-line digest of fascinating articles from the Jewish world. Topics include relationships, spirituality, personal growth, philosophy, incredible true stories, and special editions for the Jewish holidays.

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(C) 2005 InnerNet Magazine

Reprinted with permission from JEWISH WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT JEWISHMATTERS Targum Press, Inc.



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