Torah Study

Sarah’s Greatness

Sarah Imeinu was Avraham Avinu’s wife and the first matriarch. The Torah also calls her Yiskah. She is mentioned in parashas Noach but is featured in considerable detail in the Torah portions of Lech Lecha and Vayeira. Her death and burial is covered in parashas Chayei Sarah. Along with her husband, Sarah played a great role in promoting monotheism, particularly among pagan women. She was twice taken by rulers – once by Pharaoh and once by Avimelech – but both were punished for abducting her, and she was released untouched. Childless for many years, she encouraged Avraham to marry Hagar so he could have offspring; Sarah punished Hagar for becoming haughty and eventually persuaded Avraham to expel her and her wayward son, Yishmael. At age ninety, Sarah miraculously give birth to Yitzchak Avinu. She died in the aftermath of the Akeidah and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah. She lived to age 127.

Sarah Imeinu is one of the great personalities in the Torah. Together with her husband, Avraham, she spread ethical monotheism: belief in one, all-powerful, loving G-d. One interesting aspect of her character is that she embodied middas hadin.[1] This trait is most aptly described as involving boundaries, in contrast to middas hachesed, which represents the concept of no boundaries. The qualities often associated with din are self-discipline, strictness, and inner strength. As with all traits, it can be positive or negative. In this essay we will examine how Sarah personified din and how it was a significant part of her greatness. We will also see how it was subtly manifest in the few mistakes she made in her life, and how a major aspect of her self-growth was her development of the opposite trait, unbounded chesed.

Middas hadin when expressed positively involves the correct use of boundaries. One manifestation of this attribute is self-nullification, whereby one limits his or her own personal desires for the sake of the greater good. Sarah exercised this trait in a remarkable fashion; after several years of barrenness, she made an incredible sacrifice and encouraged Avraham to marry another woman in order that he bear offspring. A person can read this account and fail to recognize the degree of self-sacrifice that Sarah displayed here. She clearly had a very happy marriage with the righteous Avraham, and they had been married for many years. To then of her own volition orchestrate his marriage to another woman must have been extremely difficult for her. Sarah she did not merely passively allow Hagar to marry Avraham; she actively persuaded a reluctant Hagar that it was an incredible merit to marry such a great man. This is a classic example of a positive application of middas hadin – Sarah reined in her own desires and subjugated them to the need for Avraham to have children.[2]

The more well-known application of positive middas hadin is the use of punishment or other disciplinary measures in order to achieved a desired result. This most obviously took place when Sarah perceived that Hagar’s son, Yishmael, was committing major sins. Sarah saw that his behavior posed a grave spiritual threat to her son, Yitzchak Avinu, and demanded that Avraham expel Hagar and her son from their home. This was a very difficult demand of Avraham Avinu; he clearly loved Yishmael despite his atrocious behavior. HaShem confirmed that Sarah was correct and that he and his mother should be driven out. This was a great test for Avraham because it contradicted his strongest trait, chesed, which inclined him to keep Yishmael home in order to hopefully cause him to correct his ways. Moreover, he may have felt that if Yishmael was already sinning while living in Avraham’s home, he would deteriorate even further in far worse spiritual settings. Yet HaShem showed Avraham that in this instance, the trait of middas hadin was more appropriate. By showing chesed to Yishmael, Avraham would have been doing a disservice to Yitzchak; exercising strictness toward Yishmael, however, was an act of kindness to Yitzchak. This is an example of how sometimes a display of middas hadin can be the kindest approach.

Yet we also see that Sarah was criticized for excessive middas hadin. The Torah tells us that Hagar married Avraham and immediately became pregnant. This caused her to become arrogant and disrespectful of Sarah – she reasoned that since Sarah had not borne any children, she surely was not as righteous as everyone believed. In response, with Avraham’s consent, Sarah afflicted Hagar. There is much discussion as to how exactly Sarah did this; many commentaries explain that she simply treated Hagar like the maidservant that she indeed was. Rav Eliyahu E. Dessler, ztz”l, writes that Sarah’s intentions were almost totally pure; she wanted to prevent Hagar from becoming too arrogant.[3] Yet Ramban writes that Sarah sinned in afflicting Hagar, and as a punishment, Hagar’s descendants would afflict her own.[4] Thus, in this case she misapplied middas hadin slightly, which for someone of her stature was considered a sin.

Another incident demonstrates how Sarah’s inclination toward middas hadin caused her to err slightly and how HaShem enabled her to rectify this trait. In the beginning of parashas Vayeira, the angels told Avraham that Sarah would have a baby. When Sarah heard this, she laughed (vatitzchak) and cynically said to herself that it was physically impossible for her to bear a child. According to Rav Dessler, her cynicism was so subtle that she herself was not completely aware of it until HaShem Himself rebuked her.[5] Nevertheless, we need to understand why, despite her great faith and trust in HaShem, Sarah found it hard to accept that she could give birth. Moreover, a few verses earlier, when Avraham was informed about the same future miracle, he also laughed, but Chazal explain that his laughter was one of joy and wonderment. We know that Sarah was no less righteous than Avraham, and was even a greater prophet than he; therefore, why did they react so differently to the news of this miracle?

To answer this question, we must grasp the deeper significance of laughter. Laughter is aroused when something unexpected happens and the normal boundaries are broken. There are different types of laughter. There is laughter of joy, expressing wonderment at the unexpected occurrence that took place. Alternatively there can be a cynical type of laughter, expressing disbelief that this unexpected occurrence is possible. With regard to the tidings that Avraham and Sarah would have a child, their respective reactions reflected their natural character traits. Avraham represents chesed, which is overflowing. A person who overflows is not bound by limits. Therefore it is easier for him to accept when events take place that transcend the normal boundaries. Accordingly, when HaShem informed Avraham that he would have a baby, he laughed out of joy, though it would defy all the boundaries of nature for an elderly, infertile woman and very old man to have a child. In contrast, Sarah’s trait was din, boundaries. Therefore it was harder for her to fully accept the possibility that she would break all the laws of nature and have a child. Accordingly, her laugh had a hint of cynicism.

However, the birth of Yitzchak itself enabled Sarah to rectify this outgrowth of middas hadin. When he was born, Sarah said, “Elokim has made tzchok for me; whoever hears shall laugh for me.” She continued by marveling at the fact that she was finally able to bear a son. The commentaries explain that she now realized the extent to which HaShem had broken the boundaries of nature to perform this remarkable miracle.[6]

We have discussed how each of the Avos had to work on the character traits that were less natural to them. For example, many of Avraham Avinu’s ten tests required him to exercise middas hadin, contradicting his natural tendency toward chessed. It seems that Sarah faced the opposite challenge, acknowledging that sometimes there are no boundaries, in particular regarding miracles.

We have seen how Sarah Imeinu epitomized the positive aspects of middas hadin in self-nullification and appropriate strictness. We have also discussed an equally great aspect of her personality – how she went against her nature when required. These lessons are applicable both to people who lean toward middas hachesed and to those inclined toward middas hadin. For the former, the Torah teaches the need to set boundaries on occasion, and for the latter, it teaches that one must sometimes break them.

 

Notes and Sources

[1] See Shem MiShmuel (5679), Vayeira, p. 190.

[2] Rashi (Bereishis 16:2) also points out that she hoped to merit children of her own by virtue of enduring a rival wife.

[3] Michtav m’Eliyahu, vol. 5, p. 131.

[4] Ramban, Bereishis 16:6.

[5] Michtav m’Eliyahu, vol. 5, p. 129.

[6] Rashi and Ramban, Bereishis 21:17.

 

“From the book “Beacons of Light

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