Sarah, Esther, and Rabbi Akiva’s Riddle
What Connects Sarah And Esther In The Bible?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Parshat Chayei Sarah – which translates to “The Life Of Sarah” – tells us that Sarah lived to the age of 127. It seems like mere trivia, the kind of thing that you forget as quickly as you read it.
But Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of the Talmud, noticed something curious… that this number, 127, pops up in one other place in the Bible: It’s the number of provinces in the Persian empire in the days of Achashverosh and Queen Esther.
Clearly, it’s got to be a coincidence, right? What could Sarah’s age possibly have to do with Persian provinces? But Rabbi Akiva doesn’t think it’s mere coincidence – and after watching this video, you might not either.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. Welcome to Parshat Chayei Sarah.
Sarah's Age and Rabbi Akiva’s Question
The opening verse of Chayei Sarah talks about the amount of years that our matriarch, Sarah, lived. And as it happens, that verse gets featured in a famous rabbinic riddle. Let me tell you about it.
The immortal sage, Rabbi Akiva, we are told, once saw his students dozing off in class, and he decided to shake them back awake with a challenge, a question he posed about Sarah’s lifetime.
We are told she was 127 years old, and Rabbi Akiva picked up on that. He challenged his students with this query:
מָה רָאֲתָה אֶסְתֵּר שֶׁתִּמְלֹךְ עַל שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה, אֶלָּא תָּבוֹא אֶסְתֵּר שֶׁהָיְתָה בַּת בִּתָּהּ שֶׁל שָׂרָה שֶׁחָיְתָה מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים וָשֶׁבַע וְתִמְלֹךְ עַל מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים וְשֶׁבַע מְדִינוֹת.
'Why was it exactly that Esther ended up ruling over 127 provinces?
It came about because Esther was a descendant of Sarah, Sarah lived to 127; [therefore] let Esther come and rule over 127 provinces!' (Bereishit Rabbah 58:3)
But what’s the deal with this riddle? At face value, Rabbi Akiva makes this strange – almost humorous – logical leap. Because, of course, yes, Sarah’s age happens to correspond to the number of provinces ruled over by Esther. And that’s sort of an intriguing coincidence, maybe.
But does Queen Esther, this heroine of the Purim saga, have anything really to do with Sarah, Abraham’s wife?
So… the question really is: Was Rabbi Akiva just joking here – was this really a harmless little stunt to wake his sleepy students? Or did Rabbi Akiva’s little 'wake-the-students-joke' conceal a hidden meaning that his students, and we, might eventually glean from it?
Connecting Sarah to Esther
To begin to see what Rabbi Akiva might have been getting at, let’s start with this question: Did Sarah and Esther truly have anything fundamental in common with one another?
And yet, in Rabbi Akiva’s mind, there was actually something particular about Sarah and Esther that seems to have bound them together. Their respective 'hundred-and-twenty-sevens' were somehow aligned with one another. What was that quality that bound these women together?
What Does the Bible Say About Sarah's Age?
To get a clue, I want to take you back to what Rashi actually tells us was Abraham’s eulogy, as it were, for Sarah. Now, to be sure, although the text of the Torah tells us that Abraham did eulogize Sarah, it doesn’t tell us what he said. Rashi surmises, though, that the way the Torah counts Sarah’s 127 years alludes to the essence of Abraham’s eulogy.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים--שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
And the life of Sarah was a hundred years, twenty years, seven years; those were the years of the life of Sarah.
So Rashi, when he interprets the breakup of these years into groups, he suggested there were three groups of years, each connected to the other. When Sarah was a hundred, Rashi says, she was as guiltless, as free from sin as when she was just twenty. And when she was twenty, she was as beautiful, as innocent-looking, as when she was seven. And that, Rashi says, was the essence of Abraham’s eulogy.
Now, a couple years back – in our very first year of parsha videos – I actually talked with you about what might be the power behind Rashi’s words here. I quoted for you something Rabbi Soloveitchik said about this Rashi.
Rabbi Soloveitchik saw in Rashi a kind of path through time that Sarah charted.
7. 20. 100. Three stages...
As we go through life, Rabbi Soloveitchik said, we all go through stages:
- Earliest youth is filled with innocence, exuberance and curiosity. We’re discovering ourselves.
- And when we become adolescents, we start prizing independence.
- As we get older we find ourselves responsible for others and focused on the future.
- And eventually, adulthood gives way to middle age, and middle age gives way to our sunset years.
Each of these stages comes with new priorities, new vistas, new ways of looking at our lives and new ways of looking at the world.
Now, most of us go through life living each stage, and then leaving it behind as we are experiencing the next one. But there’s another way to go through life, an extraordinary way. It’s the way Sarah did it, Rabbi Soloveitchik says — and it is what Rashi was getting at with his cryptic comment.
What We Learn About Sarah
You see, the way Sarah did it, you don’t just passively travel through life’s stages, discarding the past for the more immediate stage of the present. No, you build as you go: You take each stage with you as you encounter the next one.
So, you know, you’re seven, you’re wide-eyed and curious. But as the years pass and you approach 20, you don't exchange that curiosity of youth for independence and self-discovery of your new adolescent self. No. You take it with you, that curiosity, you merge it somehow into your new, teenage self.
And as you progress further, towards adulthood, and you start attaining a little bit of wisdom, you merge that wisdom with the curiosity and independence of your earlier stages. And that kind of synthesis, it continues – through adulthood, through middle age, through your later years.
And that, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, is what marked Sarah, in Abraham’s eyes, as so extraordinary. She was able to bring all of her earlier selves with her, as she aged. It made her years more powerful, more potent.
Okay, so with this in mind, let’s come back to Rabbi Akiva and his sleepy students.
What Really Connects Sarah and Esther?
Rabbi Akiva connected Sarah’s 127 years with Esther’s 127 provinces. And I had asked you: What quality seems to unite Sarah and Esther? I think we are now in a position to answer that question.
The quality was: Queenship. Let me explain.
You see, a queen, when successful, is an uniter. She is not merely someone who makes the rules for a certain territory or decides the fate of her subjects in that territory. A queen does do all that, but if she is really successful, she also unites her subjects in some way, she transforms a mere territory into a nation. The people that comprise a nation are not just individuals, milling around, living in proximity to one another. They have some sort of common cause that binds them together, and the monarch is a living symbol of that cause. Hopefully, she works proactively to advance it.
How does a king or a queen advance that cause? At their best, monarchs find ways to join individual talents to create a larger whole. Bob is a blacksmith, Phil is a farmer, Carol is a shepherdess, Beryl is a tailor... and the monarch? The monarch finds a way to incorporate the energies of Bob, Phil, Carol, and Beryl, towards common goals.
A king or queen unites unique individuals and inflects their talents towards the service of the nation’s cause.
Esther played such a role on the grandest of stages, on the world stage, uniting peoples across far-flung provinces. She was a ruler of territory, of space. But, Rabbi Akiva argues, she was actually living out a vision first formulated by her ancestor Sarah. A person who we might call an empress of time.
You see, what Rabbi Akiva was really saying is that Esther had a teacher, as it were. What Esther did on a grand scale, when she united individual people, Sarah, long before her, did on a much more private, personal level, when she united individual moments – moments of her own life.
In doing that, Sarah was a ruler of years. She bound years together so that they were not lost as time marched on; she allowed the whole of her moments to become more than the sum of their parts.
Another Clue: The Meaning of Sarah's Name
And here’s the kicker. Think for a minute about Sarah’s name, how she got her name. Her name actually expresses royalty. Her name was originally Sarai, which can be translated as 'my princess,' almost as if it were a term of endearment that Abraham, her husband, have used for her.
But then one day, God came out of the clouds and changed her name. He told Abraham that from here on out, Sarai was to be known as Sarah:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל־אַבְרָהָם שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא־תִקְרָא אֶת־שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ...מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ׃
And God said to Abraham, 'As for your wife Sarai, you don’t call her Sarai, her name is Sarah… Rulers of nations shall come from her.' (Genesis 17:15–16)
Sarah. Not 'my princess,' just 'princess.' It was as if God was saying to Abraham: She is not merely your princess. She is more universal than that. Rulers of nations will come from her. She is to be a princess of the world. She belongs to humanity itself.
Why Is Sarah So Important?
Listen carefully to those words of the verse: 'Rulers of nations shall come from her.' Note the plural there: nations. Many of them.
So let me ask you: Historically, when did that prophecy come true? When did a descendant of Sarah live to become not just queen over a particular nation, but a ruler of many nations – an empress, as it were?
It happened at the dawn of the age of empires, in the days of Achashveirosh, when Esther became queen over Persia’s 127 provinces. The largest empire the world had ever seen.
You see, the woman who ruled over 127 territories was the descendant of the woman who, in her own life, had lived to 127 years, had ruled over 127 years. Two queens but of different realms: Years and territories; time and space.
Not all of us can be emperors over space. We don’t have to be. But we can be emperors of time in our own lives.
Indeed, Esther is not the only one who can learn from Sarah. Sarah’s example can help us, her descendants, also find ways to become masters of our moments, just like she was.