Sunday, October 28, 2007

Parshat Chaye Sarah

The Torah describes Yitzhak meeting Rivka for the first time. After meeting her and being introduced to her “Yizchak brought her into the tent [of] Sarah his mother”. Actually, the Torah doesn’t add in the word “of”. In fact, Rashi1 explains that Yitzchak brought her into the tent and she became Sarah his mother. If we look at the Targum we can understand this better. He translates this verse as “Yitzchak brought her into the tent, and looked and saw that her actions were as proper as those of Sarah”. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 60: 16)explains how he could see immediately that Rivka shared the same admirable qualities of Sarah; while Sarah was alive there was a candle lit that would last from one Erev Shabbat (Friday afternoon) to the next, and a special blessing on the bread, and a cloud (of G-d’s presence) hovered above the tent. When Sarah died these three blessings ceased, but as soon as Rivka entered her tent they resumed. Yitzchak could perceive through these blessings that she was as equally righteous as his mother had been. What was so special about these three blessings that they were testimony to the righteousness of the matriarchs?

The Ba’al HaTurim, in his commentary on the word “her tent”, points out that this same word, HaOhela, appears eight other times in the Bible. He explains that these eight times hint to the eight places that the Divine Presence rested, first in the tabernacle in the desert, then in Gilgal (when they first entered Israel), then in Shilo, Nov, Givon, the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Second Temple after the destruction of the First, and in the future when the Messiah arrives. What is the connection between the tent of Sarah and Rivka, and the sites where the Shechina dwelled?

The answer to both of these questions is hinted at by the Ramban (Nachmanides), in his commentary to the beginning of Shemot, the book of Exodus. In his opening comments he discusses the main theme of the book as being one of redemption. But he stresses that being freed from the physical shackles of slavery in Egypt is only a partial redemption. Full redemption from the spiritual bonds is only achieved once the Jews have returned to the spiritual level of their forefathers. This occurred only once they had received the Torah at Mount Sinai and constructed the Mishkan (Tabernacle). This is the reason that Shemot concludes with “The Cloud of Glory covering the tent of meeting, and the glory of the L-rd filled he Mishkan”.

In other words, the Mishkan and later the Temple were only a means to return to the spiritual level achieved by Sarah and Rivka in their homes. The cloud of glory which covered the Tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem, was the same cloud that was constantly present above the tent of Sarah and Rivka. In fact the other two blessings, the candle that remained constantly lit and the bread which remained fresh, were also paralleled in the Mishkan and the Temple, with the Menorah which was lit every night and the showbread which was placed in the Sanctuary and remained fresh from one Shabbat to the next.

This explains the Ba’al HaTurim’s comment that “HaOhela” refers to the eight sites where the Shechina dwelt, because the tent of Sarah was actually the first such place which was the paradigm for all future sites. The degree to which the patriarchs were able to make G-d’s presence felt in this world, through their homes and family relationships, was the ultimate goal which we later required the Temple to achieve. This is why they merited to be buried in Chevron, in the cave which Avraham purchased in which to bury Sarah. Chevron comes form the root Chibur, connection. Sarah and Avraham, and later Rivka and Yitzchak, and Leah and Ya’akov, were the ones who brought G-d into this world, connecting the spiritual worlds where the Shechina dwells with our own physical world.

We find many laws and customs to do with the home that parallel activities performed in the Temple. What we must realise is that in fact it is really the other way round. The Temple and its services were only a means of reaching the levels of spirituality found in the homes of our matriarchs. When we say that the focus of Judaism is not in the Temple or in the Synagogue but in the home, we are expressing this same idea, that all of the rituals and ceremonies are only a lesser substitute for the spirituality and Divine Presence that can be achieved in the home.

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