Parshas Chayei Sarah
A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find?
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
When Moshe approached G-d at the end of Parashas Shemos, complaining about
the increasement of slavery for the Jewish people, the Talmud (Sanhedrin
111a) says that G-d responded (paraphrasing):
"What a shame. They don't make them like they used to! Avraham, Yitzchak
and Ya'akov also suffered tests, but they never questioned what I was
Yitzchak had to dig five wells before he was able to keep one undisputed.
Ya'akov had to pay for the place to pitch his tent, and in both cases, it
the occurrences had been in Eretz Yisroel, the land that G-d had promised
would belong to them in the future! Yet, neither complained, nor did they
question the Divine Providence in all of it.
What had been Avraham's test? The Talmud says that Avraham's having to buy
the burial spot for his beloved wife from Ephron in this week's parsha,
also in spite of the fact that he knew the land would one day belong to
You may ask the question: What comparison can there be between Moshe's
worrying about the suffering of the entire Jewish people, in spite of the
promise of G-d to free them, and Avraham's having to spend only 400 pieces
of silver to buy a piece of land he would one day own anyhow? After all, it
had only been Moshe's love and concern for the Jewish people that had
prompted him to speak up in the first place?
But that was the whole point. If Moshe's love and concern for the Jewish
people made him question Divine judgment, then he had acted as if G-d had
been less concerned, and less loving of his children than himself. On the
contrary: if Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov never doubted the love of G-d
in even so "small" an incident, and they proceeded without any sense of
Divine rejection, how much more so should Moshe have not complained, given
that so many Jewish lives were at stake, and that G-d had already directly
interceded and had announced the upcoming redemption!
The operating principle is: what the Fathers (Avraham, Yitzchak, and
Ya'akov) did is a sign for the Children (all the generations that
followed). Sometimes we find ourselves involved in situations that don't
make sense to us, given what G-d had promised the Jewish people, and what
we expect from G-d. It may even feel as if what we are doing is futile.
However, as we learn from Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, it is our job to
respond to the reality as it presents itself to us at the time, and to act
with complete faith and trust that G-d knows what He is doing, and that in
the end, it will come back to us as a reward.
When G-d changed Avraham's name from Avrom to Avraham, the letter "heh" was
added. This signified that he was to be a "father of nations," and it also
made his name equal 248 (aleph = 1; bais = 2; raish = 200; heh = 8; mem =
40), the number of important limbs in the body, as if to say, Avraham
served G-d with all of his limbs.
Sarah, Avraham's wife also had been given a Divine name change, from Sarai
to Sarah. Like her husband's name, it received the letter "heh." However,
unlike Avraham's name, the transformation from Sarai to Sarah required not
just an additional letter, but the subtraction of the letter "yud," which,
according to the midrash, created a real tumult in heaven!
As the story goes, once the yud was removed from Sarai's name, it came
before G-d and complained:
"Is that fair! Before I was attached to that righteous woman's name, and
G-d, having mercy on the yud, answered,
"Don't worry, little yud. You'll have a new place, for Moshe will attach
you to the righteous Hoshea's name, to make his name become Yehoshua, and
it will be the addition of you that will protect him from the evil plan of
the spies when they return back from spying the land of Israel!"
Mollified, the yud went on its merry little way, anticipating his future
role in the destiny of the Jewish people.
It is a nice midrash, and without going into exactly what all of this is
supposed to mean (do letters of the Aleph-Bais actually speak?), let's
instead focus on the meaning behind this account. First of all, the Talmud
states (Menachos 29b) that this world, the physical world we live in now,
was made from the letter "heh," whereas, the World-to-Come was created from
the letter "yud" (according to the Maharal, since the letter yud is the
only letter in the Aleph-Bais not comprised of other letters, it symbolizes
the pristine simplicity of the Eternal World).
However, Sarah's name change was supposed to add something, not take away
something. The inclusion of the heh into Avraham's name made it possible
for him to father the pure and holy Yitzchak. If the yud symbolized Sarah's
innate connection to the World-to-Come, why would G-d take that way from
her? And if He didn't take it away from her, then what was gained by taking
the yud and "handing" it over to Yehoshua's name instead?
The answer lies in this week's parsha, as you hoped. (Otherwise, why would
I bring up all of this now?)
The Torah does not tell us much about our Foremother, Sarah, in any overt
way. Indeed, most of our exposure to Sarah is when she seems to be upset
about Hagar and Yishmael, and she therefore seems to appear like a very
austere person. What was her principle trait? What earned her the right to
be the mother of all mothers to the Jewish people, even to the world? Why
did Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) compose "Aishes Chayil" (sung in Jewish
homes each Friday night after Shalom Aleichem and before Kiddush) with
Sarah Imeinu (lit. our mother) in mind?
We can find the answer to these questions from what occurs once Yitzchak
brought his new wife, Rivka, into his mother's tent, and was comforted
after the loss of his mother. There and then, Rashi points out, all the
miracles that had happened for Sarah, and had ceased upon her death,
resumed once again for Rivka. It was as if she was the spiritual heir of
her deceased mother-in-law.
What were the three miracles that occurred for Sarah? According to the
midrash, the Shabbos candles used to burn non-stop from Shabbos to Shabbos,
the dough she kneaded would produce more than was prepared, and a special
cloud enveloped her tent (reminiscent of the special Clouds of Glory that
would later envelope the Jewish people during their forty years in the
desert after leaving Egypt).
Why these three miracles specifically? Because, when Chava (Eve) ate from
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil against G-d's will, she caused three
things to happen. Firstly, Adam, who was "kneaded" from the earth and who
was therefore referred to as "challah," was blemished through the sin,
initiated by his wife. Secondly, eating from the tree brought spiritual
darkness to the world; thirdly, eating resulted in death, and it is death
that is the primary cause of spiritually impurity.
After almost 2,000 years, Sarah grew in spirituality to the point that she,
personally, had counteracted the spiritual effects of Chava's sin. Her
candles burned weekly to indicate that she had returned the light to the
world extinguished at the time of the sin; her dough miraculously produced
more challah, to represent the "challah" she had restored to the world by
allowing her husband to rise to such spiritual greatness. And the clouds
that enveloped her environment revealed that she had been successful (to a
large degree) to create a super-spiritually pure atmosphere while living
within a world that was quite steeped in spiritual impurity.
The only question is, what does all of this have to do with the letter yud
taken from her name, and its transference from Sarah to Yehoshua?
In Parashas Sh'lach, twelve spies were sent out by Moshe to spy the land of
Israel. Ten returned with an evil report, as a result of which the Jewish
people were forced to spend an additional thirty-eight years in the desert
wandering. Only two spies came back and reported favorably, Kaleiv and
Yehoshua, and it was only these two who merited to survive the desert and
enter Eretz Yisroel later.
Kaleiv was saved because he first visited Ma'areh Mahkpelah and prostrated
himself upon the graves of our Forefathers, asking them for help; he was
successful. However, what did Yehoshua have to protect him from the spies'
evil advice? The yud from Sarah's name, because embodied within it was the
capacity to recreate a "Garden of Eden" atmosphere, even though the
surrounding environment doesn't support such a high spiritual reality. This
was the spiritual greatness that Yehoshua had inherited from Sarah via the
yud attached to his name. In spite of the stormy world that surrounded
Yehoshua, he was insulated against it by the spiritual capacity to rise
above it, inherent in the letter yud from Sarah's name.
This is what makes a true Aishes Chayil, of whom Shlomo HaMelech wrote. She
possesses the ability, above all else, to transform her non-spiritual
reality into one of tremendous spirituality, even when all the surrounding
elements are working against her.
This was Sarah Imeinu, and this was the legacy that she left to her
descendants. I remember reading a story from the Holocaust of a train-full
of Jews on its way to one of the Nazi death camps. They had been told to
quickly gather together a small bag of belongings before being loaded onto
a cattle car. It had been erev Shabbos at the time. As the train traveled
down the line to a place no one knew, yet everyone feared, great despair
set in. Yet, amongst all the despair, one woman pulled out one of the few
belongings she had bothered to pack for her long journey: Shabbos candle
sticks. With as much devotion as always (if not more), she recited the
brochos and lit the candles, and instantly the car full of trapped and
distraught Jews was transformed by the warm glow of the Shabbos candles,
and the woman's devotion to G-d, albeit temporarily.
Some may see this woman's lighting of her Shabbos candles on her
death-train as futile attempt to hang on to a lifestyle that had clearly
passed for good for her, the product of wishful thinking. However, the
Torah looks at this woman as a true Aishes Chayil, a woman who clearly had
incorporated the "yud" of Sarah's name into very way of thinking, and was
therefore able to hold onto the values of her ancestors in spite of the
direction of the world around her-forever.
It had been a close call. True, in the end, G-d had never intended to have
Avraham slaughter his only true son. Still, nevertheless, Avraham realized
how vulnerable his spiritual legacy was until Yitzchak married and had
children. Therefore, his top priority after the Akeida had been to find a
suitable shidduch for his spiritual heir.
To accomplish this, Avraham sent his trusty servant, Eliezer, back to the
land of his birth in search of a family member who could marry Yitzchak. He
even made Eliezer swear that he would not deviate from his master's wish,
so important was this to Avraham.
Immediately, Eliezer set out on his mission, and already a miracle
occurred: G-d had shortened the distance of his journey, and he arrived
ahead of schedule. Then, to make sure he would not err, Eliezer invoked
Divine assistance in the selection process, saying: If the woman who comes
out to the well offers to draw water for me and my camels, then I shall
know that she is the Divinely-chosen spouse for my master's son.
Well, it happened just as he had requested. Rivka had come down to the well
to fetch water, and, according to the midrash, the water even came up to
her to be fetched! However, it was a time in history when real magic was
common, and there was no telling from the miracle that Rivka was indeed the
true soul-mate for Yitzchak.
However, once Rivka saw Eliezer and the camels, and offered to provide them
with drink, then food and lodging, Eliezer knew that G-d was involved
directly, and that his mission had proven to be fruitful. It was not long
before Eliezer was on his way home with the young Rivka in tow, on her way
back to meet her destined husband.
This is just another example of how, to the Torah, as impressive as
miracles may be, they don't fully catch our attention. What draws a
Torah-crowd? A person steeped in Torah, one committed to the values of the
Torah. The Torah-zealot is one who is prepared to risk himself to uphold
Torah, not one who is prepared to risk Torah to uphold himself. It is such
a person whom G-d, in the end, will give His backing to, and even change
the world for him, if need be, to allow him to do his work.
Avraham died at the age of 175 years, five years early to avoid seeing his
grandson Eisav go off in the wrong spiritual direction. However, as Rashi
points out, the fact that Yishmael gave respect to Yitzchak by allowing him
to precede him at Avraham's burial, indicates that Yishmael did tshuva.
Furthermore, the Talmud (Babba Basra 91a) states that on the day Avraham
died, all the heads of nations came out to mourn, "Woe to the world that
has lost its leader! Woe to the ship that has lost its captain!"
As mentioned before, what happened to the Forefathers is a sign of what is
to happen to the future descendants. We have already witnessed firsthand
the evil wrought by the hands of Eisav. May we therefore witness the full
tshuva of Yishmael and his descendants, and may we live to witness the day
that all the nations of the world recognize the value of the Jewish people
to the world, and allow us all to live in peace and respect of each other.