Women & Judaism

Sarah – The Legacy of Passion

To Live your Values Takes Passion
I once asked a group of American college-aged students whether there was anything that they were willing to die for. Really, I wanted to explore with them what it would mean living for those values. To my horror, there were a number of students who could not find anything to die for. While these students may have found many things that were meaningful in their lives, none was so meaningful that without this, life itself was no longer worth it.
To live for values is much more than to believe in them. It involves the commitment to be someone and to do something. It also involves a limitation – to be someone is not to be everything else, to go in one direction is to choose not to go in another. Teenagers often don’t like choosing because they want to keep all their options open. Eventually they realize that, by trying to keep open all options, they actually embrace no options.
When we choose, we are holding ourselves accountable. We are saying who we really are. We are choosing to live a life of significance.
But there is more. If we are going to take the leap of merely believing in values into the realm of actually living them, we need passion. Passion is the engine which gives depth, inspiration and continuity.
Sarah – The Jewish Leader of Passion
The person who modeled for the Jewish people this idea of passion was the first Jewess, Sarah, Abraham's wife. While Abraham was the scientist, finding G-d behind the veils of nature, Sarah provided passion and desire for the holy – the heart that drives conviction.[1] Abraham passed onto the Jewish people the inheritance of straight and clear thinking; Sarah provided the inner soul, the warmth and the flavor of belief. [2] 
Make no mistake; Sarah had a towering intellect. Sarah was the first and greatest of the seven prophetesses.[3] Like Moses, her prophecy was direct and not through any intermediary.[4] G-d tells Abraham: Listen to all that Sarah tells you for she is a greater prophet than you.[5] “Obey her, even if you cannot agree with her words. Depend on her judgment – she goes deeper than you as altogether women have a deeper insight into character.”[6]
Although there were fewer prophetesses with a public message than male prophets, prophecy per se comes to us with what we Cabbalists call our female side. [7] Certainly female prophets seemed to have achieved their prophecy more naturally than males.  Miriam, the sister of Moses was a prophetess while still a child and Chana's heart-felt prayer reached the level of prophecy.  When prophecy will return in the Messianic era women will outdo men in prophecy.[8]
For what a person can perceive through his own intellectual efforts compared to what one can achieve through prophecy can be compared to the difference between our body and our soul.[9]  This is because prophecy is a knowledge and perception that comes from G-d as a gift to man.[10]
But despite these staggering levels of holiness, that is not what we remember her for. Sarah was a leader of the Jewish people – the Foremother of the Foremothers. She taught us that to be a leader it is not good enough to believe in something – one has to be able to communicate that belief to others and get their buy-in. The vital component to doing this is passion. If others just agree with you, but do not buy into your passion, they will partner you in your mission. 

Sarah had that passion. She became the heart of the Jewish people. That is why not only her merits, but Abraham’s merits as well, are attributed to her.[11]
Sarah used her passion to achieve spiritual greatness. She was a genius of the soul. Just because of that, G-d tested her.

G-d tests great people by seeing whether their trait is an authentic values-driven one, or whether they are simply expressing their natural personality. Sarah was tested on her passion. Sarah was extraordinarily beautiful[12] and on two occasions this was noticed by powerful and dishonorable men. These were Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and Avimelech, King of Grar, neither of whom had any compunction in taking her against her will.[13] If not for the fact that Abraham claimed to be her brother and not her husband, they would have simply disposed of him.[14] People in power will go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy their insatiable lusts and express their control.

But what is fascinating is that the Cabbalistic work, the Zohar, states that this was really Sarah's test – a test of whether she would cleave to the wrong parties, to Pharaoh and Avimelech instead of to her husband, Abraham.[15] Of course, Sarah would not have agreed to such an arrangement at the outset, but if she was forced into this, perhaps she could come to terms with being the illustrious wife of a wealthy and powerful ruler. After all, here was Sara, a person of intense passion. This passion had been vital for her ability to attain higher dimensions of spirituality. But passion is not a simple thing. It can easily be attached to the wrong thing. To have proper passion, one must have absolute moral resolve. And one must have absolute clarity as well.

This is no easy thing. A part of us genuinely wants to do the wrong thing, even if it is not the deepest most spiritual part of who we are.  A part of us genuinely delights in speaking negatively about someone else, or in overeating, or in cheating on our spouses. This is the superficial us and we have to get past this if we are to live a life of real meaning. The Sages call this the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination.[16] G-d gave this to man to ensure that he had a balance of choice. Things got more complicate after the sin of Adam and Eve, when good and evil were mixed up, making moral clarity an even greater challenge.[17]
The Evil Inclination made the Creation 'Very Good'.  .
To give us choice, G-d had to really trust us; He had to really have faith that man, though clearly capable of messing up, would ultimately get it right.[18]  The Torah is full of stories of people messing up, of the personal and global spiritual havoc this caused, and of G-d helping man to pick himself up again and get back on track.   

When G-d created man, the Torah does not say “And G-d looked and He saw that it was good (tov)” as it does with the rest of the creation.  For man now had the awesome power to make choices that would even contradict G-d’s own Will that he do good.

This meant that man was not now in his final state of tov- good for he could yet choose to do evil. However, the Torah then states that: “G-d saw everything that he had created and it was tov meod – very good. [19]The word meod means more accurately, 'more and more'. Man was that creature that could continuously fulfill his potential – more and more – and the potential of the world. [20] The entire creation came together in a symphony – a harmony in which man would be appointed by G-d as a conductor.[21] The letters of the word meod are the same letters as adam.  Adam – man – is the being that can become increasingly more. 

But what was this final ingredient that turned the world into very good. The Sages say that this was man's Yetzer Hara?[22] But how can this be? The Torah held back from saying that man was good (tov), because he is uniquely capable of doing evil. Now that same urge to do evil is called very good?  The Sages explain that if not for the Yetzer Hara no-one would build a house or marry a woman or have children or engage in commerce.[23]  If we can take our urges for intimacy for ownership and for getting rich – we can channel these for good.[24]   But had there been no such urges to begin with we would never have engaged in these things. In the desire to do good we would have simply withdraw from the world to the nearest ashram or cave.

So the evil inclination – that bundle of passions that takes us to all the wrong places – can also be turned around to face the other direction. Hence in the Shema we say, You should serve G-d with all of your hearts.[25] But the verse is singular! How does a person have two hearts? These, say the Sages, are our yetzer hatov (good inclination) and our yetzer hara.[26]
But to do this first we have to sort and divide the good from the bad. Sarah was a master at this.  When Sarah died, Abraham made a eulogy for her. This eulogy became the “Woman of Valor” (Eishet Chayil) song which we all sing every Friday night around the Sabbath table.[27]  Abraham says in this eulogy, “She seeks out wool and linen.”[28] In Judaism we may not wear garments that are made of wool and linen together. This is called shaatnez. The Sages interpret this as Sarah's ability to have moral clarity – to separate what was good from what was bad.[29]  Sarah's passion made her great because she combined it with another trait – the ability to look at moral ambiguity and to sort out the good from the bad.

 This was behind Sarah's shocking act of kicking Ishmael out of her home.[30] Ishmael was the child of Hagar and Abraham.[31] Hagar was Sarah's maidservant.[32] Sarah saw Ishmael’s drift towards idolatry and other sins – contradicting everything that she and Abraham had lived for.[33] Abraham wanted to keep Ishmael close, and to make him a part of the future Jewish people.[34] Sarah made the difficult decision to oppose this, leaving Isaac alone to provide the spiritual legacy of the future Jewish people[35] and sending Ishmael off to create a new civilization. Sarah's disagreement with and Abraham's argument was no small thing. It was about what the borders and parameters of the Jewish people should be. G-d clearly came out on the side of Sarah. G-d tells Abraham to listen to his wife and history was forever changed.[36] 
Sarah set up a pattern of history.[37] From then onwards Jewish lineage would be determined by the mother and not the father.[38] Sarah’s very name was given by G-d and came from the word to rule over.[39]  If Sarah's passion was to be used for good, it requires the parameters and borders of its expression to be defined. Part of the female power is to be able to do just this.  
The Power of Female – Setting up the Boundaries of Nurturance
The classic paradigm of this is the womb. The woman originally absorbs the male seminal sperm – which on its own is useless – and nurtures this to a living child. During pregnancy, the womb provided the total environment of the fetus – its food, its oxygen, its warmth, its blood supply.  Hence the word Hebrew word for womb, rechem, is related to mercy, rachamim.[40]

And so the mercy of the female compliments her ability to set the boundaries and parameters of the newborn – determining whether it will be Jewish or not – and defining its environment. The latter comes from a quality we call din – the same quality that defines the laws of nature. Mercy is a fine-tuning of the environment, allowing general principles to be applied according to the specific needs of each individual situation.

The male contribution to the fertilization of an egg cell is infinitely small. It contains no effort and no pain.  The female dimension is opposite.  She has the ability to absorb this minute speck within herself and build from it a completely new life. The child is formed physically within the mother over a considerable time; effort and pain are involved and finally a child is born.

In broadest strokes, the female creates the environment, the parameters and boundaries in order to nurture. Part of this package is the ability to see truth when things are clouded and in times of challenge. Women were famously faithful to G-d at times when men were not. [41] It is just at these times, when the clarity of the intellect is clouded, that the person has to draw on deeper levels of commitment to pull through.  

There are many verses which deal with the relationship of the Jewish people to G-d as one of a wife to a husband[42] or of a bride to a groom[43].Therefore, the female concept is a general model for our relationship with G-d. 

This is where Sarah comes in. Sarah’s resistance to Pharaoh and Avimelech also drew on the ability to resist any mixture of good and bad, and to be able to take only the good in the end.  Sarah hence rectified – at least for herself – the sin of Eve in listening to the snake.  Sarah’s snake was Pharaoh and her resistance was a correction of the original sin.[44] She further redeemed the sparks of holiness from Egypt through the gifts that Pharaoh gave to Abraham because of her.[45]

Sarah then bequeathed all of this – the discerning ability to provide the parameters, to fine tune what should be within and what should be without, of setting the environment and creating the elements of nurturance – to all the future generations of women. This is part of the Jewish conception of female power.  

From Rabbi Edelstein's forthcoming book, “What is man?” Rabbi Edelstein is currently the Director of Neve College for Women

Notes and Sources

[1] Shem Mi'Shmuel, Genesis, Chayeh Sarah, Year 681, pg. 259
[2]See Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveichik's eulogy for the Tolne Rebbetzin, Rebecca Twersky, delivered on Jan. 30, 1977.
[3] Talmud Bavli, Tractate Megila pg. 14a and Tractate Sotah 7a  The seven prophetesses were Sarah, Miriam (the sister of Moses), Deborah, Chana, Avigail, Chulda and Ester.  
[4] Midrash Rabah, Genesis, 23a. tells us that she was the only woman to achieve this. However see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chap. 7, law 6 that Moses prophecy was unique. This may, however, only refer to prophets who came after Moses.  
[5]  Genesis 21: 12 and Rashi, ad loc. 
[6] Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Ibid.
[7]  Maharal on Ethics of our Fathers (Derech Chaim), Chap. 1, Mishneh 1 (end)
[8] Or Hachaim, Exodus, 15: 20-21
[9] Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, Daat Tevunot, Vol. 2, no. 4.
[10] Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, Daat Tevunot,  no. 178
[11]Shem Mi'Shmuel, Genesis, Chayeh Sarah, Year 681, pg. 259 in the name of the Zohar 
[12] Genesis 12: 11 and 14
[13] Genesis 12: 15; 20: 2
[14] Ibid, 12: 13; 20:2
[15] Shem Mi'Shmuel, Genesis, Chayeh Sarah, Year 681, pg. 259
[16] See for example Talmud Bavli, Tractate, Bava Batra, 16a
[17] Ramchal, Maamar HeGeula, Chap. 2
[18] Hence the verse says, “Seven times the Tzadik (righteous man) falls, and gets up.”(Proverbs, 24: 16)
[19] Genesis, 1: 31, see the Ramban, ad locum. 
[20]Rabbi Moshe Shapira
[21] Meshech Chochma, Genesis1: 3
[22] Midrash Rabah, Bereishit, 9: 7
[23] Ibid
[24] Yafeh Toar, ibid
[25] Deutronomy 6: 5
[26] Rashi, ibid
[27] The song is from Proverbs, 31: 10 – 31
 However the Yalkut Shimoni tells us that the song was about Sarah. Midrash Tanchuma, Chayeh Sarah, Chap. 4 tells us that it was first composed by Abraham, and later included by Solomon at the end of his book of Proverbs. 
[28] Proverbs 31: 13
[29] Tanchuma, ad locum.
[30] Genesis 21: 10.
[31] Genesis 16: 1-4
[32] Genesis 16: 1
[33] Genesis 21: 9. See Rashi ad locum who states that the words used by the Torah, metzachek, refers to the three cardinal sins. However, at the end of his life, Ishmael repented. We learn this from Genesis 25: 17 where it uses the term Va'yigva – for the death of Ishmael. Rashi, ad locum tells us that this word is only used with reference to the death of the righteous.
[34] Genesis 21: 11
[35] Tanchuma, Chayeh Sarah, Chap. 4 
[36] Genesis 21: 12
[37] This is based on a principle, “The actions of the fathers are a sign to the children” and used extensively by the commentators throughout their commentaries on Genesis. See for example the Ramban 26: 1; Ha'Emek Davar, 18: 15 and 30: 40; Meshech Chochma  15: 15; Taz, 45: 14. This is based on the Talmud Bavli, Sotah, 34a.
[38] Talmud, Tractate Kidushin, Chap. 3, Mishneh 12  (pg 68b) based on Deuteronomy 7: 3-4
[39] See Rashi on Genesis 17: 16 where G-d himself changes her name to Sarah from Sarai.
[40] The Talmud Bavli, Tractate Chulin, 63a, discusses a non-kosher bird called racham (Levitcus 11:18) and relates that to the word rachamim. 
[41]See for example Rav Tzadok HaCohen, Tzidkat HaTzadik, 184
[42] 1See for example Hosea 2:4; Isaiah 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 15: 8; Malachi 2: 11
[43]See for example Song of Songs 4:8-12; 5:1; Isaiah 49:18; 61: 10; 62:5; Jeremiah 33:11.
                Psita DeRav Kahana, no 22 brings correspondingly ten places where G-d is mentioned as being clothed in the clothes of a groom.
[44] Shem Mi'Shmuel, Genesis, Chayeh Sarah, Year 677
[45] Shem Mi'Shmuel,  ibid, based on Genesis, 12; 16

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