The Talmud teaches that “In the merit of righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt”.1 Redemption is intrinsically related to women, malchut (sovereignty), and the Divine feminine dimension.
I mentioned in my dvar on parashat Lech-Lecha that when I think of my mother, I think of tzedakah and chessed, words that are hard to translate because they capture the real depths of words like ‘generous’, ‘giving’, ‘loving’, and ‘kindness’. My mom embodied and exemplified these qualities to an angelic degree: so full of life, love, warmth, and light, at every turn, every single moment. Being around that inspired me to be more loving, more giving, more full of a zest for each moment in life.
As I read this parashah about Sarah’s life and transition to the next world and Rivka as a young girl and her transition into the next chapter of her life, I think of their chesed and the chesed that has been shown to me and what effect it has had on me. I wasn’t always the best student, I think I felt constricted by how it was all structured. I wanted more freedom to express myself. It didn’t help that I was going to schools where there were strict dress codes. For the one year that I went to a Jewish high school, I remember wearing pink pants and black shirt. The administration thought I was on drugs, but in my head I was thinking, “I’m not on drugs, I just listen to hip hop and alternative music, and I want to express myself through fashion just as much as through music. And to this day drugs have never spoken to me. I was different, and so I was judged and dealt with accordingly.
Tiferet (harmony) and grace come from the balancing of gevurah (judgment) and chesed (loving-kindness). I felt, as someone who was different, that it was easier to deal with me with the weight being placed on gevurah more than chesed. The problem is that this pushes a kid further away, whereas the balance can teach a lesson while bringing the person closer. I think the only way I even made it through getting kicked out of two Jewish high schools and going to three years of non-Jewish school was that the chesed came from my mother, and that sustained me.
We can’t even begin to understand the power of chesed in this world and the next. And before I go into the parashah of Sarah (and Rivkah) and their chesed, I want to share one more story about when I was in college. I saw college as a microcosm of the world. I went to the University of Maryland– it had 40,000 students, it’s own major newspaper, a radio and TV station, and so much more. There were things I could do without my mom’s help, and I did, such as running the radio station (Music Director and DJ). I had a show called Futterman’s Rule, and I would play and talk about music and bring on artists to perform live. I also wrote for the newspaper. All of that I was capable of, but I had a dream to manage artists and start a record label, releasing music to the world and getting it the attention and love that I had for it. That required someone to believe in my dream and support it (financially as well). So many dreams don’t even get started, as most have safek (doubt) in themselves, and if they don’t have a support around them pushing them to believe, they don’t stand a fighting chance. My mom helped me push past my safek into manifestation. She fronted the money I needed to press the CDs I produced, get the distribution deal, and do official releases. I signed a few artists and got their albums on the charts, all while selling out shows in D.C. for them and finishing college. This is all to say, it paved the way through her kindness to every project I have done since. If she had simply birthed me, one can say that would have been enough, but she facilitated the birth of my dreams and for that I am forever grateful.
King Solomon in Kohelet writes, “One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those have I not found”.2 Rabbeinu Bachya comments that Solomon was referring to the Golden Calf and that among all those who sinned there was not one woman. Yet women played a major role in contributing to and helping to build the Mishkan, even though they had no sin to atone for. Chazal state, “Hashem gave women greater understanding than He gave men.”3 This is seen in their righteousness in being first to contribute to the Mishkan, despite their not needing to atone for the Golden Calf. Solomon states in Mishlei, “The wisdom of women builds her house”.4 The Mishkan is the home that we are tasked to build as a dwelling place for the revelation of the concealed. We must all learn from women how to build a temple of generosity within and around us.
This parashah is named The Life of Sarah (Chayei Sarah) and its first pasuk (verse) is strangely written:
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה
And the life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years: these were the years of the life of Sarah5
There are endless commentaries on the very odd phrasing. Why not just say she was 127? Rashi and many others teach that it is written in such a way, adding the word “years” to each group, to teach that at the age of 100, Sarah was like a 20 year old in regards to sin, and when she was 20 she was like that of a 7 year old in regards to beauty. And all her years were equal in goodness. This of course seems strange to think that a 7 year old is to be viewed as more beautiful than a 20 year old, but Rashi is not speaking of beauty in the physical sense, but the beauty of her deeds. The actions of a 7 year old are viewed favorably and not judged in the same way as that of a 20 year old, to whom different standards are applied. So, Rashi is teaching that her deeds at 20 were as flawless and beautiful as that of a child.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that there are four levels of humility: to be humbler than those that are greater than you, to be humbler than your equals, to be humbler than those that are lesser than you, and finally, if you are the most humble person, to strive to become even more humble.6 The essence of life, especially in Olam HaBa (the next world), is one’s humility.7 And we see both this life and the next hinted at in the verse by the repetition of, “And the life of Sarah was.. These were the years of the life of Sarah”8 Reb Natan expounds on this teaching that Sarah reflects the fourth level of humility. Whether she was 100, twenty, or seven, she kept humbling herself more and more. When it’s written, “all her days were good,” it reflects her attaining true humility, which is the essence of life.9
The Midrash expounds on the verse as “The Lord knows the days of the perfect, and their inheritance shall be forever”10 – just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect, meaning the perfection of the person during those years.11 This comes to teach that turning a fall into a rise can elevate the dark spark into light, returning it to its source, perfecting it. And when that is done, the previous years are looked to as true repentance and perfection and are looked at with chesed and not gevurah. So looking back at the years from this standpoint, Sarah was perfect, as R’ Yochanan said, “like a perfect calf”.
This is a strange statement, but in another Gemara it relates a story of R’ Akiva during his imprisonment by the Romans. R’ Shimon Bar Yochai would come to him to learn Torah and expressed his gratitude, and R’ Akiva responded, “My son, more than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wants to give it milk.” R’ Akiva was trying to illustrate that more than R’ Shimon felt the need and desire to learn, R’ Akiva needed to share.12 Hashem gives to us, and we are meant to give back to Him. That’s the reciprocal relationship we must perfect in order to realize redemption, and that is what it is meant by Sarah having perfect days like a perfect calf, because her chesed exemplified the kindness Hashem bestows on us always. And in that relationship manifesting outwards to everyone she came into contact with, Sarah brought down the light, the Shechinah, the cloud that hovered above her tent, and perfected the give and take.
In a similar fashion, in Kabbalah we see that the perfection of the first triad of the seven lower sefirot: chessed, gevurah, and tiferet, paralleling the upper body. The second triad, paralleling the lower body, is netzach (dominance), hod (empathy), and yesod (foundation). Chesed and gevurah are both related to giving. Chesed is giving freely while gevurah holds back from giving, as it is the practice of restraint and judgment. And the balance equals tiferet. We pray for the blessing of rain, but we need it given with restraint; too much rain would drown us all.
In Kabbalah, yesod parallels the sexual organ. This is the organ with which a person can both give and receive pleasure. Yesod represents a reciprocal relationship. Of course this, when perfected between a man and a woman, is the perfected state, one in which birth and creation manifest through partnership with the Creator. The one-way relationship exemplified by the first triad (chessed, gevurah, and tiferet) has to be perfected within oneself before hoping to perfect the reciprocal relationship exemplified by the second triad (netzach, hod and yesod). R’ Kaplan illustrates the interplay of netzach and hod with a woman nursing her child: nursing is giving but can give a woman as much pleasure or even more than it gives the child.
Femininity is what gives birth to all kindness, love, and the future and final redemption. Biologically, we see that the male is the giver and the female receives, nurtures, and proceeds to give much more than what she received. When the female receives over one million sperm cells, she only selects one, and from her one fertilized egg, she gives back a complete life, an infant. There is a receiving, but what comes from that is completion. The future is female, because the future comes from completion of a moment, of an action. R’ Aryeh Kaplan explains that masculinity is giving, but the essence of femininity is receiving and completing. Whereas masculinity parallels Yetzirah, which is “something from something”, the femininity of Malchut parallels Asiyah, which is “completion.”13 The Sefirot, the way the world was built and our interaction with it, are a balance of chesed and gevurah, or masculinity and femininity.
R’ Kaplan goes on to explain that another way of looking at chokhmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding) is that in the five-dimensional array of the sefirot, chokhmah is past and binah is future. This is reflected in the Hebrew for Zachar (זָכָר), which means “to remember.” The same letters form the word Zachar (זָכָר) “male.” Similarly, the word Nekevah, (נְקֵבָה) means “female,” but it derives from the same root as Nikev (נְקֵב) “to pierce.” So, Nekeveh is like the womb, the place where the past (the Zachar) is able to manifest into something new.14 In essence, therefore, the past is male and the future female. Both chokhmah and the past can be explained as “the information we have.” The future, on the other hand, only exists in our projections, which are a product of binah. And since it can only ever be pure conjecture, we have to pierce into our binah to see it.15
King Solomon writes, “The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.” (וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם).16 Peirush HaRokeach asks why we would need Scripture to tell us this, as it’s common knowledge. He explains that this is to be understood as a parable that before Hashem allows the sun of a righteous leader to set (i.e. before their passing), He causes the sun of another righteous leader to rise (i.e. their successor enters the picture). And we see here in our parashah that before Hashem caused Sarah’s sun to set, He caused Rivka’s sun to rise. In the last verse from our previous parashah, it is written, “Behold! Milcah too has borne children… [and Bethuel begot Rebecca]”17 We see the same in regards to Moshe and Yehoshua, as is stated, Hashem said to Moshe, “Take to yourself Yehoshua son of Nun…”18 Rivkah is shown to reflect this trait of chesed, of light.
וְאַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּֽיהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ
and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell,
כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק
but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac19
Rashi points out that Eliezer (Avraham’s servant) understood from Avraham that he was instructing him to find a wife for his son Yitzchak that would be worthy of him, based on her personal qualities and deeds. Eliezer took it upon himself to test to see if the woman he chose was filled with chesed. This was important because Avraham and Sarah’s house was built on chesed, a house that was always welcoming and giving to everyone. This is seen when Eliezer said, “for You have done chesed with my master.” This is the meaning of the Gemera when it says, “A bride whose eyes are beautiful – her whole body need not be examined.”20 This means that if a bride is of “good eye,” then she is generous and has everything a man could want. With Rivkah, who passed the test with flying colors, Eliezer found the perfect match for Yitzchak.21 We see how perfect in the verse when it states that Eliezer had not even finished speaking when suddenly Rivkah appeared.22
Every Shabbat we read Eishet Chayil (Woman of Strength), a poem taken from the end of the book of Proverbs, set as an alphabetic acrostic, depicting the woman “clothed with strength and dignity.” It is sung to the woman of the house, as a thanks for her chesed and her strength both in the spiritual and physical world, though some read it allegorically as the woman being the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and Shabbat being our bride. The poem reads, “She holds out her hand to the poor, and extends her hand to the destitute… Charm is deceptive and beauty is naught; a God-fearing woman is the one to be praised. Give her praise for her accomplishments, and let her deeds laud her at the gates.”23 Of course, the gate here could also correlate to the 50th Gate (of Wisdom). Kabbalistically, the 50th Gate of Wisdom is connected to malchut (sovereignty), which, in the Ten Sefirot (emanations), is the vessel that manifests the Light of Keter (Crown) (See the side for a graphic I made of the Sefirot as records/vinyl). God’s Infinite Light originates at a level that is beyond this world, physically inaccessible to us, but it is filtered down through the Sefirot until it reaches the Malchut, out of which it shines onto us in our finite world.
Infused in our tefilot (prayers) is the concept of moshiach and the final redemption, and redemption is intrinsically related to women. Kabbalistically, the sefirah of malchut renews all of existence and reflects the feminine dimension. We are now in exile, so malchut is in a state of descent and does not receive direct influence from the other sefirot. One can look at it like a woman in a state of separation from her husband. But in the redemptive state, the highest source of malchut reveals itself and the bonds between the various sefirot are reestablished, manifesting the Infinite Light.
As we covered previously, the actions of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs are prophetic indicators of what is to come for future generations. The Arizal explains that the future redemption will follow the pattern of our redemption and Exodus from Egypt. In the prophecy of Micah, alluding to the final redemption, it is written, “As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders.”24 And since our ultimate and final redemption will, in some ways, be a reincarnation of the redemptive state from Egypt, it just the same will be by the merit of the righteous women of our generation, the generation of moshiach.
The Sefirot reaches its culmination in malchut. The sefirot act like a vessel for Hashem’s light, concealing Hashem’s light enough and in a way to benefit those that have to receive it. And so malchut acts as the concealment of the Divine light so that Hashem can interact with creation, which manifests from the tzimtzum (constriction of Hashem’s light to a bearable way that allows free will and so on). In a sense, through malchut, Hashem gives us a key to the kingdom, where we receive and give and can create either light or darkness. Malchut is where the purpose of giving is realized, where the recipient can reciprocate and become a “giver”.25
This is why malchut is seen as the feminine sefirah. It is the ultimate “vessel,” created to hold the Light of the Infinite. It’s the definition of a recipient, as Zohar characterizes it as having “nothing of its own”, receiving everything that it has from the preceding sefirot.26 While simultaneously it is the sefirah with the most power that literally unifies all the various powers of the different sefirot. Without it, creation would be incomplete. Feminine energy in this sense is more unified and what manifests the future and completion.27
Sarah and Rivkah shared these elements to angelic degrees. That is why they are praised in this parashah as such. We have to keep in mind the level of righteousness our matriarchs had to reach without the guidance of the Torah. That paired with their surroundings which were the antithesis of what they embodied. In Likkutei Sichot it breaks down that when someone finds themselves in a place that’s detrimental to their standards or way of life, there are three ways to preserve one’s integrity. The first option is to strengthen one’s self inwardly so as not to be influenced by the surroundings. But this isn’t ideal, because if one were to relax the walls they have built up, they would surrender and fall to what they were trying to avoid. The second option is separating from those around oneself. But this too has a fault because it is only an elevation by virtue of the removal of temptation, and since the person hasn’t faced their challenges head on, they are prone to falling towards what they were trying to avoid. The third would be for the person to decide to live in the environment while trying to influence, inspire and elevate it to the level they are striving towards. This is when one can triumph over the environment, because not only are you facing it head on, you are changing it into what you need.28 This is what Avraham and Sarah did by opening the four walls of their tent and what they ensured would be the future by bringing Yitzchak and Rivkah together.
Rashi states that when Yitzchak brought Rivkah into his tent, “He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivkah arrived, they resumed.”29
Yitzchak saw that Rivkah emulated Sarah in the way that Sarah fulfilled the three mitzvot of the feminine: lighting candles on Friday night, baking challah and separating a portion for Hashem, and family purity (the laws governing a couple’s intimate relationship bringing it to an elevated and holy state). And for following in this path, Rivkah merited the same three miracles—her candles burned from Shabbat to Shabbat, her dough never spoiled, and the Shechinah (a Heavenly cloud) hovered over her tent.
Chazal teach that a man and woman enter into a partnership with Hashem when they marry. The Talmud teaches that the role of the man is to “bring home the wheat” while the woman prepares it for eating,30 His job is to “conquer”31 by scouring the world for the necessary raw materials, and her job is to take the materiality and transform it, to spiritualize reality, and to use it to create a Godly home.
These three miracles and indeed the three mitzvot to this day are done by lighting Shabbat candles, which brings the holiness of Shabbat into the home. By separating challah before baking bread, she brings holiness into the food, elevating it back to its source. And by keeping the laws of taharat hamishpachah (family purity), she brings holiness into the body itself. The Midrash teaches: “If you will keep the lights of Shabbat, I will show you the lights of Zion.”32 This is the action needed to bring the complete redemption.33
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Notes & Sources
- Talmud, Sotah 11b
- Ecclesiastes 7:28
- Niddah 45b
- Proverbs 14:1
- Bereishit 23:1
- Likutey Moharan I, 14:4
- Likutey Moharan II, 72
- Likkutei Sichot, Vol V, pp. 92-104
- Likutey Halachot V, p. 180a
- Tehillim 37:18
- Bereishit Rabba 58:1
- Talmud Pesachim 112a
- R’ Aryeh Kaplan, “Inner Space”, p. 76
- Text expansion with Rivka Golding
- R’ Aryeh Kaplan, “Inner Space”, p. 59
- Genesis 22:20-23
- Peirush HaRokeach
- Genesis 24:3-4
- Talmud Taanit, 24
- R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 126
- Genesis 24:15
- Proverbs 31:10-31
- Micah 7:15
- R. Yitchak Ashlag, Hakdamah LaSefer HaZohar (in Sulam), no. 10 (p. 5)
- Zohar 1:238a, 1:249a, b; cf. Likutey Moharan 1
- Pardes Rimonim 8:2
- Likkutei Sichot, Vol V, pp. 92-104
- Bereishit Rabbah 60:16
- Yevamot 63a
- Ibid 65b
- Yalkut Shimoni, beginning of Parshat Behaalotcha
- Likutei Sichot the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Vol. 15, pp. 163-173