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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5777 – 11/26/2016

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5777 – 11/26/2016

In honor of the wedding of Daniel Rabinoff and Elena Derksen

Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

Our portion is the only one in the Torah named after a woman. There are three named after men (Noach, Yitro and Pinchas), and, given the relative amount of text devoted to women as opposed to men, it’s perhaps surprising that the percentage is even that high. Actually, two women figure prominently in our parashah – Sarah of course, in the preparations for her burial, and Rivka, in the preparations for her entry into the family of Israel and the propagation of the covenant between Gd and Avraham into the next generation. The package is tied together at the end, when we read that Yitzchak took Rivka into his tent, which was his mother’s tent, and all the miraculous signs of saintliness that had been present when Sarah was the mistress of the house returned under Rivka. Ramchal write:

“Yitzchak was consoled after his mother.” We find in the Zohar that he was literally consoled, for Sarah’s image became visible in Avraham’s house from the time Rivka entered. It is well-known that the tzaddikim of early days would feel great satisfaction upon returning to their former place in this world and finding other tzaddikim on their level. Rivka was an emulation of Sarah not only in appearance, but also in deed and in action. In this way Sarah’s appearance was visible in the house of Avraham. Upon seeing this appearance of his mother, Yitzchak was consoled on the loss of Sarah – it was as if she had actually returned to his father’s house.

From this quote I’m not sure if he means that Sarah, or her spirit, was visible directly to Yitzchak, or if he saw Sarah in Rivka. I’m not sure it matters much, unless one is very interested in the specifics of life after death. But Rivka was obviously an emulation of Sarah in her spiritual level, and this was evidenced in the ongoing miracles that surrounded her.

To get an idea of Sarah’s stature, consider this comment by Ramchal:

The Torah spells out for us the number of years the righteous Sarah lived, something it does not do for other women … to the extent that she was able to rectify the blemish caused by Chava and transform bad into good. Chava gave birth to Cain who personified gevurah in its warped form, while Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak who was the earthly chariot [i.e. personification] of gevurah (the attribute of justice) in its refined, mended form.

Gevurah and din are often conflated, and we have discussed their relationship in previous parshiyot. It is worth noting that chesed is associated with Abraham and the male side (the side that provides the seed, the side that interacts with the outer world in traditional thought) while gevurah is associated with the female side (receives the seed and gives it form, turned inward to nurture inner, spiritual values in traditional thought). This mapping should be seen as a parallel mapping to the Avraham/chesed – Yitzchak/gevurah mapping. In fact, one Zohar states that Yitzchak was born with a female soul (!) – and that this is why Sarah laughed when his birth was announced. It was for this reason that he could not marry until after the Akeidah, when his (female, original) soul left him, and a male soul replaced it. At the same time, we are told, Rivka was born; now that Yitzchak had a suitable “male” soul, his soul-mate could enter the world; the fact that Rivka married Yitzchak at the tender age of 3 (and was already drawing water for the household and was able to make a decision whether or not to go with Eliezer) did not seem to trouble the Sages. According to some traditions, Avraham had figured out that there was one Gd by the age of three, so perhaps great souls can do great things even with immature bodies.

Ramchal also comments on the fact that Rivka “come out” to draw water at the well where she would meet Avraham’s servant, Eliezer:

In addition to the simple meaning of “coming out,” the principle interpretation is that she came out from ha-kever (heh-kuf-vet-reish) – the grave of tumah [impurity] into which she was born – raising herself to the level of connecting with ha-boker (heh-bet-kuf-reish), the “morning” – the light – of kedusha. The transformation from ha-kever of tumah to ha-boker of kedusha is the reason she was named Rivka (reish-vet-kuf-heh), ha-kever spelled backwards.

I believe that here Ramchal is referring to Rivka’s paternal house as a “grave of impurity.” I think that we can take this a step further. Truthfully, our bodies and the entire physical world are a “grave of impurity,” and what we all need to do is to “come out” of that grave, by allowing our awareness and perception to be on the purely spiritual, transcendental realm that underlies the physical world.

Perhaps this explains why the trope of the well runs through much of Bereishit – in those days one went down to the water (on steps for example, rather than drawing it up in a bucket like the Western stereotype of a well). Water is a common metaphor for the transcendental field, the “ocean of Pure Existence.” So Rebecca “came out” of her father’s house and “went down” to the transcendent. Now our Rabbis tell us that, unlike everyone else who has ever drawn water from a well, when Rivka went down, the water rose up to meet her, a miracle which Eliezer duly noted before asking her for a drink. Apparently Rivka was more familiar with the transcendent than the other water-drawers – it greeted her like an old friend! Another way to look at it is this – with repeated experience of the transcendent, its nature becomes ingrained in our awareness, almost as a background to all our thinking and activity. We don’t have to go as far “down” to reach the transcendent, it rises to meet us as it were.

Rivka knew that as the mother of the nation of Israel, dedicated to the One, Transcendent Gd, she needed to be so established in the transcendent that it supported her every thought and action. She worked to make that a reality. We should too!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Audio Recording:

I experienced bright cheerfuliness while listening to this recording: a very good sign of the Blessings of Sarah’s life and of the Blessings Gd gave Abraham.

I invite everyone to enjoy this recorded reading from Rabbi Michoel Slavin, principal reader of Chabad in its main Brooklyn synagogue..


1.And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.

אוַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה:

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years: The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: when she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin. Just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned, because she is not liable to punishment, so too when she was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty. — from Gen. Rabbah 58:1]

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים:לכך נכתב שנה בכל כלל וכלל, לומר לך שכל אחד נדרש לעצמו, בת מאה כבת עשרים לחטא, מה בת עשרים לא חטאה, שהרי אינה בת עונשין, אף בת מאה בלא חטא, ובת עשרים כבת שבע ליופי:

the years of the life of Sarah: All of them equally good.

שני חיי שרה: כלן שוין לטובה:

The commentary is by Rashi, the most famous and standard commentator. Sarah, he says, was without sin. Without sin is perfect. And so we have another person who seems to have achieved teshuvah, return to Primordial Oneness. This is very encouraging that we have Torah giving not only stories and commandments but also examples of those who aligned with Torah and achieved Fulfillment, something we can also do by aligning ourselves with Torah, through its sound, through studying it, through doing the mitzvah it gives and implies.

Genesis 24, 1. …and the Lrd had blessed Abraham with everything.

What does this mean? To me, he was blessed with everything means he was blessed with fulfillment of the command to “Walk before Me and be perfect”? And who is perfect? Only the One, Gd, One without a second.

So we have three, perhaps, four people, mentioned in Torah, who seem to have experienced Teshuvah, return to Primordial Oneness: Noah, Sarah, Abraham and, perhaps, Meleki-sedek, who we learned in Parshat Lech Lecha, was a priest of the Most High. Such a role perhaps can only be performed by one who “walks with perfect.”

Do we see in Parshat Chayei Sarah any others who may be perfect?

Genesis 25: 5 says, “And Abraham gave all that he possessed to Isaac”. This should include the “every blessing” Gd gave Abraham to make him perfect, so we should have Isaac also as experiencing Teshuvah—a perfect person can give perfection, so Abraham can give it to Isaac.

In addition, Genesis 25:17 counts Ishmael’s years the same way it counts Sarah and Abraham’s, so, following Rashi, we may infer that Ishmael was without sin.

Genesis 25:16 says of Ishmael’s sons that they lived in open cities and walled cities. Rashi relates “open cities” to Psalm 98:4: “Open your mouths and sing praises”. Perfection in the open cities and imperfection in the walled ones, so Ishmael’s sons were a mix of purity and impurity—like most of us.

To accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, we can follow the mitzvah given in Torah, especially the Ten Commandments, and do whatever we feel connects us with Gd, with One — especially the prayers given in our siddurs, and especially prayers from our heart, our open hearts.