Setting the Tone in the Jewish Home by Eve Levy
I will never forget that special Shabbat 16 years ago, Shabbat Chayei Sarah. I spent it in Chevron at the Matriarch Sarah’s tomb in Ma’arat Hamachpela. Chevron is considered to be one of the four holy cities of Israel.
The name for the city where Chevron is situated is Kiryat Arbah, literally translated as "the city of four.” It was named for the four couples who were to be buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Our forefather Abraham purchased this burial ground because he knew through Divine inspiration that this was where Adam and Eve already rested, and it was the place he knew to be at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
This is a very holy and wonderful place, but for security reasons, it is not a location that one visits too often. Sixteen years ago, I was a young girl studying in seminary for the year. I was very enthusiastic about having every chavaya (Israeli experience) possible. So, a bunch of girlfriends and I packed our sleeping bags and a few Shabbat necessities and took a bulletproof bus to Chevron to spend Shabbat within walking distance of the Ma'arat Hamachpela, where the Matriarch Sarah is buried. It was also Parshat Chayei Sarah.
We were not the only ones with that idea. Thousands of Jews flocked to the small area for this special Shabbat. We were lucky to find a spot to set up our sleeping bags on the cold floor of a school gym. We ate cold gefilte fish out of a jar. It was fun and, of course, all part of the chavaya. We walked back and forth to the Ma'arat Hamachpela for Shabbat prayers on Friday evening, Shabbat morning, and then again for evening prayers as the Shabbat started to fade away.
I didn’t want the experience to end! The ruach and energy was incredible! It was a Shabbat that will forever be engraved in my heart — spiritual, uplifting and holy. It is hard to put the feelings I had into words. The Israeli army and the police forces ensured our safety. I recall that literally every five steps along the path to the Ma'arat, there were police and soldiers protecting us, wishing us, Shabbat Shalom. (It was the year 2000, the beginning of the Intifada, and tensions were high.)
Why did I even go? What was so special about our Matriarch Sarah that, thousands of years after her death, we all flocked there?
Sarah was one of a kind. Her home was one of a kind. She stood by her husband's side through thick and thin. No mater how difficult the situation, she always chose to see the good. Her home was filled with the light of the Shabbat candles and the smell of heavenly challah, and a Divine cloud hovered over the tent.
Sarah and Abraham had a mission to illuminate the world. They ignited the hearts and souls of all of those around them, showing them a revolutionary way of life. They taught the the world about the oneness of G-d. They were true trailblazers, forging a path for us to follow.
It is painful to imagine the dramatic scene that took place when Sarah died. Abraham and their son, Isaac, returned from the episode known as the binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzchak). They were excited to tell Sarah about how they had passed this huge test with flying colors. Isaac, still a young man of 37, was especially excited to boast to his mom of his bravery and tell her how the knife was at his neck and how he remained so calm.
As father and son approached their home, they noticed that it looked different. It was dark. There was no fresh scent of challah in the air. The cloud of glory representing G-d’s presence was no longer hovering over the tent. As Abraham and Isaac drew nearer, they realized something terrible had happened. Their beloved wife and mother had died. They were devastated. How would they survive without her? She was their world, their love, their everything! How would they carry on?
Let’s fast forward to the conclusion of the Torah portion. Isaac now gets married. The verse says:
“And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother” (Genesis 24:67).
The commentaries teach that when Isaac brought his young wife to his mother's tent, three miracles happened: the flame of the Shabbat candles stayed lit from one erev Shabbat to the next, there was a blessing in her challah dough and G-d’s presence was felt above the tent.
It became apparent that Rebecca was a fitting successor to Sarah, for the holy presence of Sarah returned to the tent of her son. When he saw and felt that holiness, Isaac truly loved Rebecca. The void was now filled.
One commentator says, “the Jewish home is a temple and its priestess is the wife and mother whose spirit infuses it."
The woman has the strength to bring this spirituality into the Jewish home. When the husband sees his wife excited about something, he too feels excited! And this works in reverse as well. Our negativity can also spread like wildfire in our homes. We set the tone. We build the home. As our Sages have said, “Ishto zu beito” (The woman IS the home)!
When we Jewish women bring the light of Shabbat into our homes, when we create the smell of fresh challot, our Sages say that Sarah is there beside us, bestowing her blessing on us. She lives on through us!
The name of the Torah portion is Chayei Sarah (the lives of Sarah). However, it begins by talking about Sarah’s death. You might expect that under the title of "Sarah’s life," there would be stories about her life, but not here. In Judaism, we understand that righteous people (tzadikim) are considered alive even after they have passed away. They live on and on through their deeds.
The Ba’al Migale Avot, a great sage, once said that all of the prayers of the Jewish people pass through Ma’arat Hamachpela before only ascending to heaven. Our prayers awaken our forefathers and foremothers so they can help beseech G-d on our behalf!
Now I understand why this Shabbat in Chevron 16 years ago was so special for me. Sarah, our mother in heaven, was singing with us, praying with us, even dancing with us. Every week, she lights the Shabbat candles together with each of us. She continues her mission through us.
Eve Levy is a JWRP City Leader from Portland, Oregon.