CHAYEI SARA: The power of our past to define our future

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, literally “The Life of Sarah”, we are informed of her passing.

The Torah states: “These are the years  of the life of Sarah 100 years, twenty years and seven years the years of her life”. Rashi noting the seeming repetition of the phrase years of her life comments that “all the years of her life were equally good”. The statement of Rashi is baffling. Sarah’s life was tumultuous and full of ordeals and crisis from being barren to having to survive ordeals in Egypt in hiding.

So why were her years “equally good”?

There is a midrashic passage which attempts to answer this question:

“Rabbi Akiva was sitting and expounding Torah. His audience fell asleep. He tried to awaken them, and said, ‘What motivated Queen Esther to reign over one hundred and twenty and seven provinces? We must assume that Esther, as a descendant of Sarah who lived for one hundred and twenty and seven years, considered it proper to reign over one hundred and twenty and seven provinces.’” (Bereshit Rabbah)

The cryptic response has baffled the greatest of minds. Rav Tzadok offers a most magnificent exposition in an attempt to unlock this comparison. He suggests that the medrash is drawing a parallel through the number of 127 between the life experienced by Esther to that of Sarah.

Queen Esther, having discovered the plot of Haman to  wipe out the Jewish people, chose to take her life in her own hands, by entering into the Royal chamber uninvited. Her action, she knew, was signing her own death warrant. Yet, on entering, the King noticed her presence carried with it an aura of holiness. The presence captivated the king’s heart and he was so impressed and overwhelmed that he granted her permission to enter despite her disregard for the Royal etiquette.

One may wonder where Esther’s holy  presence originates from? Rav Tzadokk suggests that it could be traced back to her great-relative, the matriarch Sarah, whom she took as a role model.  Sarah lived a full life  reaching levels of  outstanding holiness in mind and  body.

However, Sarah came from the most humble of beginnings. Her whole family were idol worshippers and vehemently opposed the ideal of monotheism that her husband Abraham seeked to establish in humanity. Sarah herself spent years of her life battling and struggling to detach herself completely from the depraved philosophy of  the idolatry at the time. Gradually, she was able to transform herself and become an elevated sanctified individual.

Far from her dark and  idolatrous past hindering her progress and elevation to become a paragon of virtue,  she successfully utilized her lowly past as a springboard and catalyst to spur her on to achieving spiritual greatness not in spite of her past but because of it. Her humble background enabled her to nurture a sense of genuine humility  and gratitude to G-d  for eventually leading her to the path of truth and justice.

Queen Esther could have been forgiven for succumbing to fear and despair and a sense of being abandoned by G-d . She found herself in a seemingly impossible position, trapped in the Palace married to a non Jewish  King who had signed a decree for the annihilation of her people, cut off from her people  many who felt at the time had been betrayed by her. Her people were facing annihilation and she seemed  helpless.

Esther refused to fall into this trap, She recalled her matriarch Sarah who refused to allow dejection and self pity to rule her.  Esther recognized that there is no such thing as coincidence or finding oneself stuck in any given situation. If she was a Jewess alone in the Royal palace, there must be a purpose and meaning to G-d wanting her to be there . This awareness catapulted her to greater spiritual heights not despite but because of it . Like Sarah, her past, rather than allow it to  define her, transformed her into a vehicle for positivity, change and growth.

When Rabbi Akiva students were dozing off during the lecture, he sensed  they had despaired from reaching new and greater heights in their Torah wisdom – convincing themselves to be unworthy of venturing to new levels. It wasn’t who they believed they were, based on their past.

It was for this reason that the great Rabbi Akiva chose to teach his students this timeless lesson from the life of Sarah – rather than limit us, our pasts can be the making of us. Sarah lived 127 years and all of them were equally good. That is not to suggest that she didn’t face tremendous challenges and ordeals in her tumultuous life, but the Torah is underlining the fact in her eyes everything she achieved was built on the back of the  vicissitudes of life that she faced.  In retrospect, therefore, they were all equally good in being for her benefit .

Philosophically, this idea is played out most glaringly, in the work of Victor E Frankl. As the late Rabbi Sacks notes, in his Covenant and Conversation, Frankl was a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz where he helped many people recover the will to live. When the war was over, he founded a new school of psychotherapy—he called it Logotherapy—based on what he called “man’s will to meaning.” Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us.

This is the Sarah weltanschauung – my past can be the making of me, not limit me. Rather than search for external gratification, search for answers in the heart. This is arrogance. Rather, it is pure faith.

Times of Israel 12 November 2020

By Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch & Daniel Sher

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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