This week’s parasha is called Chayei Sarah, which literally means “the lives of Sarah”. Why does the Torah speak in the plural? Should it not have said “the life of Sarah”? An even greater peculiarity is that despite being named in her honour, the entire parasha essentially says nothing of Sarah, or of her life! It begins by briefly stating that she passed away, and describing how Abraham purchased a burial plot for her. Following this is a very long narrative that takes up the bulk of the parasha, relating in detail the journey of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who was instructed to find a bride for Isaac. His mission was successful: Eliezer finds Rebecca. The story ends by telling us that “Isaac brought [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he married Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for the loss of his mother.” (Genesis 24:67) Why did Isaac take Rebecca into his mother’s tent? And how did this comfort him?
Who is Rebecca?
At the conclusion of the last parasha we were told the story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. The parasha ends by telling us the progeny of Abraham’s brother Nachor, ending with the birth of Rebecca. This sets the stage for the story in this week’s parasha, where Rebecca and Isaac are united. Why was the passage regarding Rebecca’s birth given at the end of the last parasha, immediately following the Akedah? Rashi answers that this implies Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah.
We know of one other event that happened at the same time: the passing of Sarah. Rashi quotes the Midrash as saying that Sarah passed away when she heard that Isaac was taken to be sacrificed. Thus, three events happened at the exact same time: the binding of Isaac, the passing of Sarah, and the birth of Rebecca.
The Lives of Sarah
Rashi continues to quote from the Midrash, explaining what happened when Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother’s tent. The Midrash says that while Sarah was alive, a certain blessing was felt in her tent, a flame burned perpetually inside it, and a cloud of holiness hovered above it. When Sarah passed away, these miraculous signs ceased. At the moment that Isaac brought Rebecca into Sarah’s tent, the flame was reignited, the blessing returned, and the cloud reappeared. The Midrash concludes: Rebecca was Sarah!
This is precisely why Rebecca was born at the same time that Sarah passed away. And this is precisely why the parasha is called Chayei Sarah – the lives of Sarah. Sarah’s life did not end in her death, but continued in the life of Rebecca, who is the central figure of this parasha. When Isaac saw the miraculous signs reappear in the tent, he knew that Rebecca had the spirit of Sarah within her, and would successfully continue the divine mission. He was finally comforted, knowing that Sarah’s spark had not been extinguished.
How Old Was Rebecca?
Another major question commonly asked here is: how old was Rebecca? Tradition holds that Isaac was 37 years old at the Akedah, and the Torah tells us explicitly that he was 40 when he got married. If Rebecca was born at the time of the Akedah, this makes her just 3 years old! Could it be that Isaac married a three year old? This makes little sense, which is probably why a parallel tradition holds that Isaac was 26 years old at the time of the Akedah, making Rebecca around 14 years at marriage. But if that’s the case, the connection between Rebecca and Sarah is diminished, since Rebecca would have been born long before Sarah’s passing, and therefore could not be her reincarnation. How do we solve this conundrum?
Levels of Soul
People like to think of a soul as a single entity. In reality, the Kabbalists explain that the soul is a mosaic made up of many different parts. The simplest conception of the soul describes it as being divided into 5 hierarchical levels. The lowest is called the nefesh, corresponding to the basic life force. Above this is the ruach, referring to the “spirit” of a person, which animates them, and gives them their positive and negative inclinations. Higher still is the neshamah, the “essence” of a person which makes them absolutely unique and governs the majority of their inner traits. Beyond these are the chaya (one’s “aura”, and the part that can be said to interact with other souls) and the yechida (the highest level of soul that unites one directly with the Divine, like a spiritual umbilical cord).
These five parts of the soul are dynamic, and flow in and out of a person. For example, it is said that while one sleeps, the four upper souls leave the body and only the nefesh remains – keeping a person alive, but otherwise unconscious and “dead”. Each morning, Jews recite the prayer of “Elohai Neshamah”, thanking God for returning these souls back to the body.
The Gate of Reincarnation
The dynamism of the soul is also reflected in the fact that the five souls “enter” a person’s body at different phases of their life. This is explained in the Jewish manual on reincarnation, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, written by the 16th-century sage Rabbi Chaim Vital, the primary student of the Arizal, perhaps the greatest mystics in Jewish history.
There it is written that a person is born only with a nefesh, and receives the ruach at their bar or bat mitzvah. It is only at age twenty that one can finally access and express their neshamah, which is why the Torah considers an adult one who has reached twenty years of age. This can be seen in the fact that the many censuses taken in the Torah only numbered those individuals over twenty, and the Midrash describes how Adam and Eve were created as twenty year olds.
Rebecca and Sarah
Knowing this, we can finally solve the problem of Rebecca and Sarah. The Arizal explains that what Rebecca received was the ruach of Sarah. Of course, Rebecca could not be exactly the same person as Sarah, with the exact same soul. (That would be quite weird, suggesting that Isaac somehow married his own mother!) No, Rebecca was her own individual, with her own special essence – a unique Mother of Israel. What she carried on was the spirit of Sarah; this is what Isaac saw, and this is what reawakened Sarah’s tent.
And when does one receive the ruach? At the age of bar or bat mitzvah! This means that Rebecca was twelve years old when Sarah passed away, and at that point received her ruach. Therefore, Rebecca was “three years old” only in the sense that it had been three years since she was spiritually reborn as Sarah’s successor. Rebecca got married as a fifteen year old.
And the marriage that ensued was the most beautiful of all those described in Scripture. (And the topic of next week’s blog post.)