Stories of Our Ancestors
The midrash rounds out the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah
When the Torah first mentions Sarah--or Sarai, as she was initially named--she is among those listed as leaving Ur with Avram and his family. Initially, all that is said is that she is barren. From this bare mention, Sarah emerges in the Talmud and midrashas an equal partner in God’s work and a prophetess in her own right.
The midrash on Genesis 12:5--"...the people they made in Haran..."--includes Sarai in the missionary work that took place. The midrash says:
"And if so, let it say 'that he made” [with the verb in the singular]. Why is it said 'that they made'? Rav Huna said: Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women."
This midrashic introduction brings to light Sarah’s role in the earliest origins of the Jewish people. The Talmud lists her among the female prophets (Megillah 14a), and Sarah was universally viewed by the sages as a woman of wisdom and righteous action.
Other traditional tales illustrate Sarah’s work in bringing strangers closer to the experience of God. In part, this is done by depicting Sarah’s tent a precursor to the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting, home of the Mishkan, which housed the Ark of the Covenant) and Beit Hamikdash (Temple in Jerusalem).
In the midrashic imagination, Sarah’s tent becomes a place in which God’s blessings and imminence can be experienced. Sarah’s death temporarily halts the miracles and good works associated with the tent; Rebecca then reactivates the holiness of the tent with her marriage to Isaac, Sarah’s son.
"And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah, his mother. All the days in which Sarah lived, there was a cloud attached to the entrance of her tent. Since she died, the cloud ceased; and when Rebecca came, the cloud returned. All the days in which Sarah lived, the doors of the entrance [to her tent] were open to the wind (ruah)…. And all the days in which Sarah lived, there was a blessing sent through the dough [with which she baked]…. All the days in which Sarah lived, there was a light burning from one Shabbat evening to the next Shabbat evening…." (Genesis Rabbah 80:16 on Genesis 24:67).
These characteristics of Sarah’s (and later Rebecca’s) tent are parallel to characteristics of the Tabernacle and Temple. Sarah’s bread is like the shewbread, the light prefigures the Menorah, and the wind resembles the Holy Spirit, ruah hakodesh. In particular, the cloud mentioned in the midrash alludes to the cloud of the Shekhinah, the personified aspect of God that is imminent. The Shekhinah is an aspect of God specifically associated with the Tabernacle and Temple. The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the Mishkanand the Israelites witnessing a cloud descending upon the tent (Exodus 40:34-38). Linguistically, the word Mishkan (literally, a dwelling place) has the same root as Shekhinah, and both of these terms draw on the idea that God can be experienced as close-by, not only as transcendent.
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