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Parshat Chaye Sarah

Trembling Joy

Adapted from Chassidic sources[1] by Rabbi Yossi Marcus


"And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty-seven years and seven years— the years of Sara's life"[2]

Opening Channels

Rabbi Yosef Karo (b. 1488), author of the Code of Jewish Law, was once stumped by a puzzling passage in one of Rambam’s writings. Rabbi Yosef spent much time and effort to solve the riddle but to no avail. One night, he was struck by an idea that clarified the passage. His joy was great. The following day he overheard a young Torah student studying the same passage. To Rabbi Yosef’s surprise and chagrin, the student nonchalantly explained the passage using the same logic that Rabbi Yosef had struggled to develop. When Rabbi Yosef mentioned this to the angel with whom he would study, the angel[3] told him not to be upset. The angel explained that once Rabbi Yosef had brought the concept into the world through his effort it was now readily available to all.[4]

Similarly, the Zohar often introduces the teachings of the sages with “Rabbi so-and-so opened and said….” This is understood to mean that through the teaching of the sage, the channels to understanding that particular concept had been “opened” and were now accessible to the world at large.

And so it is with the lives and deeds of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Whatever occurred to them, the struggles they underwent and overcame, “opened the channels,” enabling us to more easily overcome our struggles.

With this in mind, what is the eternal lesson of the first Matriarch, Sarah? What paths has she paved before us?

Three Attempts

It is written in the holy Zohar[5]:

Chavah entered the world and became attached to the snake…

Noach entered the world—what is written of him? And he drank from the wine and became drunk[6]

Sarah entered the world, descended and ascended and did not become attached…as we read, And Avram and Sarah went up out of Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had.[7]…Because Avraham and Sarah kept afar from the serpent, Sarah obtained life eternal for herself…as it is written, and the life of Sarah was…, a formula not used in the case of Chava or any other woman. For Sarah attached herself throughout to life, and thus life was made her own.

Importance of Joy

The common goal of these three individuals—Chava, Noach, and Sarah—was the achievement of a joyous spirit in Divine worship. It is known that the service of G-d must be performed with joy, as King David says in Psalms, Serve G-d with joy.[8] Indeed joy is an integral part of Divine service. It is said of the Arizal that he merited the opening of the gates of wisdom, the revelation of Elijah the Prophet and the Divine spirit because of his intense joy in the fulfillment of mitzvos.[9]

For where there is joy there is completion. A joyous mitzvah is a whole mitzvah; one that involves all of the person. A joyous mitzvah accomplishes all that it must: to reveal Divinity in this world.

On the other hand, in the same book of Psalms it is written, Rejoice with trembling.[10] This verse warns of the dangers of joy gone awry. Together with celebration comes an awareness of self, which can ultimately lead to further distance from the Divine. Rejoicing with a tremble means that one’s joy is tempered with awe, where  joy is experienced with selflessness (and because of selflessness).

It was this experience of joy in purity that Chava and Noach sought to achieve but failed. Chava’s attempt is alluded to in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which according to the Midrash was a grape: “she squeezed a cluster of grapes and gave it to [Adam].”[11] In the Torah, wine is associated with joy: “wine that rejoices G-d and man.”[12]

By eating of the grape, Chavah sought to experience joy in her Divine service. Chavah, however, tasted self-awareness in her wine. The result of her eating from the forbidden fruit was that “she saw that the tree was good to eat and that it was a craving to the eyes,” i.e., she no longer operated in a purely Divine-oriented world; she and Adam now inhabited the world of self.

Noach, as the Zohar says, sought to rectify Chava’s sin.[13] So he drank from the wine and became drunk. By becoming drunk, Noach avoided the self-awareness that is brought on by wine and celebration, since a truly drunk man is unaware of his senses. However, his behavior did not achieve much. For a drug-induced transcendence is not an achievement; it is an evasion. The goal is to achieve selflessness within the context of the natural human condition, not to distort one’s perception of reality and thereby escape and avoid human-consciousness.

Kabbala[14] explains that the true rectification of Chava’s sin was achieved by Sarah. For Sarah epitomizes bittul, selflessness. Sarah embodies the sefirah of Malchus, kingship, as alluded to in her name, which connotes rulership. Malchus, the lowest sefirah, receives from the higher ones and thus epitomizes selflessness.

[As opposed to the preceding nine sefiros, Malchus has no “content” or “personality” of its own. It is not an attribute of G-d per se but rather the power of expression of all the other, preceding attributes. Thus, it is written in the Zohar that Malchus “has nothing of its own (les luh meegarmuh kloom).”[15]]

Thus Sarah was capable of experiencing joy without any of its negative side-effects. She remained selfless even while experiencing otherness.[16]

Indeed Sarah’s joy was a reflection of the ultimate joy, which will be experienced in the Messianic era—“then will our mouths be filled with laughter.”[17]        

Thus Sarah consequently gives birth to Yitzchak, so-called because “G-d has made laughter (tzchok) for me.”[18] Yitzchak embodies laughter and joy. His is the joy of the future, Yitzchak being the Patriarch most associated with the Messianic era—then [in the Messianic era] they will say to Yitzchak,you are our father.”[19]

Dancing Monarch

King David, also the embodiment of Malchus (royalty), experienced this level of selflessness as well. Thus he is described as “leaping and dancing before G-d” (with an abandon that embarrassed his wife Michal, daugher of Saul). Like Sarah, he was able to maintain selflessness even in the midst of self-manifestation. For when one experiences the ultimate level of bittul, there is no room for corruption even when joy is made manifest.

It is with the power of our past, the joy of Sarah and King David, that we are capable of experiencing the joy that will lead to the ultimate joy, when “they will come to Zion in song, eternal joy upon their heads….”[20]

[1] Sefer Hamaamarim 5679 p. 87; Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat 2:145.

[2] Genesis 23:1.

[3] In other versions of the story it is was not Rabbi Yosef’s angel but the Arizal, a contemporary of Rabbi Yosef.

[4] Chida on Proverbs 3; see also Maggid Meisharim, Ki Seitzei; Kesser Shem Tov section 256.

[5] 1:122b.

[6] Genesis 9:21. This is how the passage is quoted in Chassidic literature. In the Zohar itself, the comment about Noach comes after the one about Sarah.

[7] Genesis 13:1.

[8] Psalms 100:2.

[9] Torah Ohr 20b..

[10] 2:11.

[11] BR 19:5. See Zohar 1:36a.

[12] See Judges 9:13; Berachos 35a.

[13] See Zohar 1:73a.

[14] See Kehilas Yakov on Chava and Sarah.

[15] Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, commentary on Arizal.

[16] It is this selflessness that allows Sarah to “descend” to Egypt and “ascend” unscathed. Not only is she not adversely affected by the impurity of Egypt, she and Avraham manage to leave there heavy with cattle, silver and gold—an allusion to the sparks of holiness that they had elevated through their descent.

[17] Psalms 126:2.

[18] Genesis 21:6.

[19] Isaiah 63:16.

[20] Isaiah 35:10



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