The lessons of Jewish heroines

The lessons of Jewish heroines

Chayei Sarah | Genesis 23:1-25:18

Jews live their lives within the framework of the Jewish calendar. At this time of year, we identify strongly with the narratives contained in the weekly Torah portions that we read in the synagogue. Our thoughts are with the biblical characters of the current parshiyot. We live in the company of Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Hagar and Ishmael, and Isaac and Rebecca.

The list of biblical heroines whose stories delight our children and inspire us at this time of year does not yet include Queen Esther. In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), we do encounter two queenly women, the matriarch Sarah, and her eventual daughter-in-law, Rebecca. 

But Esther? There is no hint of her existence.

So why would I be writing about Esther at this time of the year? Purim is still many months away, and there are other female role models in the current Torah portions. 

For the answer let us turn to the Midrash and to that singular sage, Rabbi Akiva. We know that Rabbi Akiva lived a remarkable life, underwent many changes, became a preeminent Torah scholar, and died a martyr.

The Midrash introduces us to Rabbi Akiva in reference to the very first verse in this week’s Torah portion. It is a verse which seems to require no exegesis. The verse simply says, “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” What further explanation or commentary is necessary? She lived a long and productive life. 

To answer this question, we must remember that Rabbi Akiva was, first and foremost, a teacher, who had to devise methods to gain the attention of his disciples.

Here is the midrashic passage: “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 58:3)

What are we to learn from this cryptic passage? Many commentators have searched for this deeper meaning. They point out that Sarah’s life was a very full one, and at every stage she displayed the vigor of the 7-year-old child, the idealism of the 20-year-old, and the wisdom of the aged centenarian. No moment went to waste. 

If there is a lesson to be learned from her life, it is that every year is valuable, and so is every month and week and day and hour. This is Rabbi Akiva’s lesson to his sleepy students. “You’re not merely dozing off and enjoying idle daydreams. If you miss a moment of a Torah lecture, you create a void that can never again be filled.”

Rabbi Akiva insists that this is not his lesson, but Sarah’s lesson. It is the legacy that she left for her descendants. Queen Esther grasped that legacy. She did not assume the role of a passive queen, but actively reigned over all her 127 provinces. She studied their needs, recognized their individual differences, and helped each of them best utilize their unique resources. 

So too must we all learn to utilize all our blessings to the fullest, whether they be the blessing of longevity or the blessing of political power, the blessing of wealth or the blessing of grandchildren. Living a full life means appreciating all our blessings and making the most of them.

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