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Avraham and Sara - Prophecy and Spirituality

Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner





By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



A.        Introduction


Our parasha begins immediately following the drama of akeidat Yitzchak.  Without any warning, the Torah announces Sara's death.  Avraham, bereft of his life's partner, must go immediately from an event in which he almost killed his son to bury his wife.  To acquire a burial spot for her, he must negotiate with neighboring peoples and eventually pay dearly for the right. 


Those same neighboring peoples, however, can not provide Yitzchak with his future bride; for that, he must send his trusted servant to his homeland, where he hopes that a worthy candidate will be found from among his kin.  With the entry of Rivka onto the stage, Avraham retires quietly to the sidelines.  He fathers additional children through concubines, but sends them off, and he dies quietly at the age of 175 years. 


From death to marriage to death, the parasha spans the life-cycle of the first generation of the Jewish people and the transfer to the second. The title of our parasha, its opening words, "The Life of Sara," suggests that everything that occurs after Sara's death is a manifestation of what Sara accomplished during her life.  How this is so is the topic of this week's study. 


B.        Sara's Years


The first verse of our parasha reads as follows:


Sara's life was one hundred years, and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of Sara's life. (23:1)


All of the commentators comment on the verse's unusual structure.  Rashi, commenting on the repetition of the word "years," brings the following Rabbinic tradition:


Sara was as sinless at the age of one hundred as she was at twenty; and she was as beautiful at the age of twenty as she was at the age of seven. 


The Ramban, in contrast, suggests that the repetitious wording is typical of the Torah's style of expression.  At the end of the parsha, Yishmael's death is summarized using the same style: "And Yishmael's years were one hundred years, thirty years, and seven years." (Rashi, in discussing Yishmael's participation with Yitzchak in the burial of Avraham, does suggest that Yishmael repented at the end of his life).   If there is a basis for the rabbinic tradition that all of Sara's years were equally good, the Ramban believes that it is found in the ending of the verse, "these were the years of Sara's life" – all her years were equal in quality to one another. 


C.        Sara's Spirituality


To fully appreciate Sara's influence, let us investigate an occasion when Avraham and Sara did not see eye to eye.  It was Sara who sensed the dangers that Yishmael's continued presence in their home would lead to; she demanded of Avraham that he send Hagar and her son away immediately.  Avraham was disturbed by this request – how could he banish his son?  Hashem, however, appeared and told Avraham to disregard his emotional entanglement and rather trust in Sara's lucid vision (although, to appease Avraham, he promised that Yishmael would also become a powerful nation).  The midrash suggests a fascinating analogy to describe Sara's superior understanding:


She discerns the wool and the flax (Proverbs 31:13):  This refers to Sara, who said, "Cast out that slave woman and her son." 


In midrashic tradition, the dubious sacrifice that Kayin brought was flax, while wool represents Hevel's work as a shepherd. Just as Kayin and Hevel could not coexist, Sara realized that neither could Yishmael and Yitzchak.  Their relationship could only end in murder.


Rashi brings the Rabbinic tradition that Sara was superior to Avraham in prophecy.  At the beginning of his commentary to our parasha, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the venerated Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin from 1840-1892, commonly referred to as the Netziv) makes the following fascinating distinction:


Those people who interpret that Sara was greater than Avraham as referring to prophecy are mistaken.  Hashem spoke to Avraham on several occasions, while Sara was only spoken to once (in a rebuke no less – "no, for you did laugh").  Rather, the explanation is that Avraham, while a greater prophet, was lesser to her in the realm of ruach ha-kodesh (receiving the Divine spirit).


What does the Netziv mean by this distinction? Let us examine the conditions required of a person to become worthy of receiving nevu'ah (prophecy) according to the Rambam:


Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard.  Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times.  He must also possess a broad and straight perspective … His mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath God's throne, striving to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He … [After these preparations and self-refinement] then the Divine spirit of prophecy [may] descend upon him.  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Torah's Fundamentals 7:1)


To qualify as a prophet, even if one achieves the appropriate level of intellectual and moral perfection, a person remains dependent upon Hashem for prophetic wisdom.  Ruach ha-kodesh, however, does not require any Divine communication. All that is required is a special sensitivity to the present.  A person who is motivated by ruach ha-kodesh will understand life as the constant unfolding of Hashem's will and will interpret existence accordingly; he therefore will live a life of kindness and chessed to all of Hashem's creations.   The Netziv continues:


There are two reasons for this distinction [between Avraham and Sara].  First, they had very differing roles.  Avraham was a world leader, interacting with others and guiding them in the ways of righteousness (as they called him – "you are a prince of God among us") … Sara's role was different – she maintained the tent in purity and holiness.  Second, we know that ruach ha-kodesh does not fall upon someone unless they are in a state of happiness.  Sara's outstanding trait was her superior level of faith and trust in Hashem, as it states in the Midrash Rabba: "Sara said to Avraham, 'You have your promises, I have my faith.'"  Avraham functioned secure in the promises that Hashem had given him.  Sara, on the other hand, received no Divine guarantees, yet was able to live her life solely through her exemplary faith and trust, which led to a life of total happiness and serenity.


D.        Sara's Era


By understanding the separate roles that Avraham and Sara played, we can begin to understand another distinction between them.  Chevron was where Avraham received the covenant from Hashem; there he prophesized and taught Hashem's will.  Be'er Sheva, however, was where Avraham planted an "eshel," understood by Rashi to be an inn.  There, we can suggest, was Sara's sphere of influence; that is where she received travelers and guests.  In our parasha, the Ramban even suggests that Be'er Sheva was transformed after Sara's death into a special place in Avraham's eyes for prayer (commentary to 23:2).  Later on, the Ramban suggests that the blessing that Avraham receives is that of "chessed" – the trait by which Sara excelled (commentary to 24:1).  


Whose influence, ultimately, would history judge as the more substantial?  We return to the words of the Netziv for the answer.  While we cannot deny the great tests that Avraham was subjected to, he endured those tests with a sense of security and the knowledge that Hashem had spoken to him and promised him that he would becomes the father of a great nation and the source of blessing for all humanity.  Sara traveled the same road as Avraham, but with only her faith and trust as a guide.  When she dies, Avraham can longer function as the great trailblazing patriarch.  Instead, our parasha describes Avraham engaged in transitional activities:  the acquisition of a familial burial place in Eretz Yisrael and the locating of the proper spouse for Yitzchak, his son. 


Not surprisingly, the quality that Eliezer must search for in a wife for Yitzchak is not religious devotion, but a simple, basic sense of kindness towards strangers.  For the family to continue its path, the next mother must maintain those standards, which Sara had set.  As Rashi so poetically describes, when Yitzchak married Rivka, he took her into "his mother Sara's tent," where all the miracles that occurred in Sara's lifetime (the lit Shabbat candle, the blessed challa dough, and the Cloud of Glory resting above) suddenly reappeared (commentary to 24:67).  Who was the real influence in the years that Avraham lived?  The Torah answers – they were "the year's of Sara's life."

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