12 Nov Chayei Sarah: Strive For Greatness
In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, the Torah tells us of Sarah Imeinu’s passing at the age of one hundred and twenty seven years old. Following her death, Avraham Avinu negotiates the purchase price of the Me’aras Ha’Machpela, buys the cave and buries his beloved wife: וְאַחֲרֵי–כֵן קָבַר אַבְרָהָם אֶת–שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֶל–מְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה עַל–פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא—הִוא חֶבְרוֹן: בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן, and after that, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan (Bereishis 23:19).
The parsha begins by telling us: וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, and the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of Sarah’s life (23:1).
Rashi famously comments: ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים. לְכָךְ נִכְתַּב שָׁנָה בְּכָל כְּלָל וּכְלָל, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד נִדְרָשׁ לְעַצְמוֹ, בַּת ק‘ כְּבַת כ‘ לְחֵטְא, מַה בַּת כ‘ לֹא חָטְאָה, שֶׁהֲרֵי אֵינָהּ בַּת עֳנָשִׁין, אַף בַּת ק‘ בְּלֹא חֵטְא, וּבַת כ‘ כְּבַת ז‘ לְיֹפִי – The word ‘shana’ (years) is written at each category (after the hundreds, tens and ones) to teach you that each one is expounded on its own. When she was one hundred years old, she was like twenty years old with respect to sin; just as one who is twenty years old is considered sin-free, so too when Sarah was one hundred she was without sin. And when she was twenty years old, she was like seven years old with regard to beauty.
Furthermore, Rashi comments: שני חיי שרה. כֻּלָּן שָׁוִין לְטוֹבָה – The years of Sarah’s life: They were all equal for goodness.
Our first foremother, Sarah, was a tzadekes who was sin free when she died, as beautiful in her old age as in her youth, and who recognized that all the years of her life – even the difficult nisyonos she and her husband, Avraham, faced – were equal for goodness. She truly lived up to her tafkid of becoming the Eim b’Yisrael, the first mother of Israel who birthed our nation.
There is a well known Medrash that teaches:
רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא הָיָה יוֹשֵׁב וְדוֹרֵשׁ וְהַצִּבּוּר מִתְנַמְנֵם בִּקֵּשׁ לְעוֹרְרָן אָמַר מָה רָאֲתָה אֶסְתֵּר שֶׁתִּמְלֹךְ עַל שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה, אֶלָּאתָּבוֹאאֶסְתֵּרשֶׁהָיְתָהבַּתבִּתָּהּשֶׁלשָׂרָהשֶׁחָיְתָהמֵאָהוְעֶשְׂרִיםוָשֶׁבַעוְתִמְלֹךְעַלמֵאָהוְעֶשְׂרִיםוְשֶׁבַעמְדִינוֹת
R’ Akiva was sitting and lecturing and his students were falling asleep. He sought to wake them up, so he said: What did Esther see that she ruled over 127 provinces? He answered his own question and said: Let Esther, the daughter of Sarah, who lived for 127 years, come and rule over 127 provinces! (Medrash Bereishis Rabbah 58:3)
This is a seemingly very strange Medrash. How can we understand that the students of the great R’ Akiva were falling asleep in his shiur? How would his connection between Esther Ha’Malka and Sarah Imeinu wake them up? And what lesson does this Medrash teach us?
R’ Ari Wasserman quotes R’ Eliyahu Dessler zt’l (1892-1953) and writes “(In his Michtav M’Eliyahu) R’ Dessler explains that there are two ways of rousing oneself to higher levels of serving Hashem. One can either contemplate his lowliness, or aspire to greatness by aiming high.
“Rabbi Akiva chose the latter path; (he strove and aspired to reach greatness by always seeking to attain higher levels in his avodas Hashem). Well versed in the most esoteric aspects of the Torah, R’ Akiva was surely speaking about very lofty things that day in the beis medrash.
“That’s why his listeners were falling asleep: they thought that they could never possibly attain such heights. (They were focusing on their lowliness, instead of focusing on their boundless potential and ability to reach ever-higher heights.) Therefore, says R’ Dessler, R’ Akiva sought to ‘wake them up’ to the fact that, precisely by ‘thinking big,’ they could indeed become great.
“Just look at Queen Esther! he was telling them. She achieved greatness by contemplating the life of Sarah Imeinu and asking herself (to paraphrase another medrash), מתי יגיעו מעשי למעשה אבתי – when will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?
“… This was precisely Rabbi Akiva’s message to her students: If you really want to reach higher heights in serving Hashem, you can find inspiration everywhere, even – and especially – in that which currently lies beyond you.
“R’ Dessler’s understanding of this fascinating medrash teaches us the importance of striving to improve. We should never be content with the status quo. Only by constantly working on ourselves (to reach greater heights) can we, too, (grow to) serve Hashem with clarity and completeness” (Welcome to Our Table 2, p.45-46).
Only when we look at those who are greater than us, and we recognize our own boundless potential to reach higher heights, will we be able to grow in our avodas Hashem. We may never become a Sarah Imeinu, an Esther Ha’Malka, or a Rabbi Akiva, but we can certainly all become greater than we are today, if we only believe in ourselves and our ability to grow.
It happened one time that a talmid of the great R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l (1943-2011, Rosh Yeshiva Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim) visited his home on a Friday afternoon and saw him sitting with two young men wearing jeans and t-shirts, with Chumashim open in front of them. When they left, the talmid asked the Rosh Yeshiva, incredulously, “Was the Rosh Yeshiva learning Chumash with Rashi with them?” “Yes,” the Rosh Yeshiva replied. “But why?” asked the talmid (as a learning seder in Chumash with Rashi was well below the Rosh Yeshiva’s exalted level of learning!) “Because they asked,” the Rosh Yeshiva replied (Rav Nosson Tzvi, Artscroll, p.280-281).
We can all reach higher heights, if we but arouse our own selves, by remembering that the path to greatness lies in thinking big, and striving to attain that which is just beyond reach.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,