Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spirituality of Sarah

Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with some very unusual language:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים--שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.
And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
I'd like to focus on the phrase at the end of the verse: שני חיי שרה – "these were the years of the life of Sarah." Obviously, this phrase screams out for interpretation and clarification.

Netziv, in his commentary Ha'amek Davar, offers a unique insight into the difference between Avraham and Sarah that explains this unusual language. He explains that the word חיים has two meanings, the first being "life", the normal interpretation of the word. But the word חיים can also refer to a sense of joy, and excitement – what the French called "joie de vivre." 

Netziv notes that according to Chazal, Sarah was greater that Avraham in prophecy, which is somewhat difficult to believe. How could it be possible that Sarah, who never spoke directly with God (to our knowledge), could be a greater prophet than Avraham Avinu, who communicated with God directly numerous times?

To answer this question, Netziv distinguishes between two types of "prophecy." In the first type, direct communication with God, Avraham clearly outshone Sarah. But Sarah excelled in a second form of prophecy called רוח הקודש – "divine inspiration"

הוא מה שאדם מתבודד ומשרה עליו רוה"ק ויודע מה שרואה. אמנם לא דבר עמו ה'.
This is where a person secludes himself and the spirit of God dwells upon him, and he knows what he is seeing, but the word of God is not with him.
Why was Sarah greater than Avraham in Ruach Hakodesh?

הוא משני טעמים. א' שאברהם בצדקו היה מנהיג העולם ומדריכם לעבודת ה'...ומי שעסקו עם המון רבה אינו יכול להתבודד כ". משא"כ שרה היתה יושבת באהלה בקדושה וטהרה (וע' מש"כ הגאון חתם סופר בהקדמתו בזה דברים ראויים אליו ז"ל). שנית דאין רוה"ק חל אלא מתוך שמחה...ושרה זה צדקתה להפלא שהיתה באמונתה...ע"כ לא נתעצבה בכל ימי חייה והיתה שקועה ברוה"ק.
For two reasons: First of all, Avraham in his righteousness, was a world leader who guided the people to the service of God…And one who deals with the masses cannot isolate himself that much, which is not true of Sarah who sat in her tent in holiness and purity. Secondly, Ruach Hakodesh only rests upon a person through joy, and Sarah was exceedingly righteous in that she had great and wondrous faith…for this reason, she was never saddened nor worried throughout her life for all of her days, and she was therefore immersed in Ruach Hakodesh.
Sarah, explains the Netziv, was a woman of חיים – she had a joy for life, a deep faith and a positive attitude. Thus, the meaning of the phrase, שני חיי שרה is, "the years of a life of joy of Sarah."

This beautiful depiction of our great matriarch also challenges us today. With the confusing division of roles prevalent in modern society, we no longer laud the concept of התבודדות within the "tent." (And, to be honest, it's not really feasible today either.) But, we must acknowledge that this reality does have a cost, as we no longer have a sense of deep faith and often lack the חיים – the joy of life – that can only come from התבודדות.