The list of biblical heroines whose stories delight our children and inspire us at this time of year does not yet include Queen Esther, with Purim yet a few months away. In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, we do encounter two queenly women — we mourn the death of Sarah and admire Rebecca’s ability to live up to the spiritual standards of the mother-in-law she never met.
But Esther? There is neither trace nor hint of her existence. So why am writing about Esther at this time of year?.Even Chanukah, which occurs much sooner than Purim, features feminine heroines such as Yehudit. Where does Esther shine in?
For the answer let us turn to Rabbi Akiva. The midrash introduces us to Rabbi Akiva in reference to the very first verse in this week’s parsha: “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one 127 years.” She lived a long and productive life. What more is there to say?
To answer this question, remember that Rabbi Akiva was, first and foremost, a teacher. Like every teacher, he had a difficult task. Students paid attention to his lectures but few listened attentively to every lecture. Like every teacher before and since, Rabbi Akiva had to devise methods to gain the attention of his disciples.
And so, the midrash takes us into Rabbi Akiva’s classroom: “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 127 provinces? We must assume that Esther, as a descendant of Sarah who lived 127 years, considered it proper to reign over 127 provinces.’” (Bereshit Rabbah 58:3)
What are we to learn from this cryptic passage? To those of us who are teachers, there is a measure of comfort to be derived from learning that Rabbi Akiva too had difficulty maintaining the attention of his students. We also learn that his students were fully aware of the role that the number 127 plays both in the book of Genesis and in the book of Esther. We can assume that there is something about Rabbi Akiva’s mention of this coincidence that awakened the sleepy classroom.
Many commentators have searched for a deeper meaning. They point out that Sarah’s life was a 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. She led an active life, overcame numerous frustrations and obstacles, and prevailed.
If there is a lesson to be learned from her life, it is that every year is valuable, and so is every month and every week and every day and every hour. If we are to translate 127 years into 127 provinces, then each year is an entire province, each month a region, each week a city, each day a neighborhood, each hour a street, each minute a building, and every second an entire room.
If one allows himself a second of slumber, he forfeits a room. If one sleeps for a week, he loses an entire city. Every segment of time represents a significant opportunity, and with every wasted moment opportunities are lost.
This is Rabbi Akiva’s lesson to his sleepy students. “You’re not merely dozing off and enjoying idle daydreams. You are wasting time, killing time, and in the process losing opportunities which will not present themselves again. If you miss a moment of a Torah lecture, you create a void that can never again be filled.”
In contemporary terms, Rabbi Akiva’s lesson is about time management. Time is an ephemeral gift; moment lost can never be retrieved.
But 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 of her 127 provinces. As Grandmother Sarah valued each and every one of her years, so too did Esther value every one of her many provinces.
So must we all learn to utilize all of 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 of our blessings and making the most of them.
What wonderful teachers we have had, and how differently and creatively they taught us these lessons. Sarah taught them in the context of the family tent. Esther taught them from her royal palace. Rabbi Akiva taught them from his classroom lectern.
Whatever our place in life, following their lessons will lead to a life of meaning and purpose.
Thus, although this week’s Torah portion carries Sarah’s name in its very title, she would be the first to make room for her progeny, Esther, to join her in teaching her lesson to us. Esther too has a place in Parshas Chayei Sarah.