The Midrash in Braishit Rabbah on Chayei Sarah records a peculiar event related to the opening pasuk in Chayei Sara:
Rabbi Akiva was delivering a shiur when he noticed his audience dozing. In order to grab their attention, Rabbi Akiva asks “Why did Esther rule over 127 provinces? He answers: Let Esther, who is a descendant of Sara, who lived for 127 years, come and rule over 127 provinces.”
This Midrash raises many questions.
First, why do we need to know that the kehilah, the audience was fatigued and inattentive? How is that relevant to what Rabbi Akiva was about to teach?
But more than that, what is the relationship between Esther and Sara Imainu here?
In the "Yalkut Yehuda" on Sefer Bereishit, Rav Yehuda Leib Ginzburg understands the “sleep” of Rabbi Akiva’s audience allegorically. We know that Rabbi Akiva lived in the period during and after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. Included in this tragic time was the devastating failed revolt led by Bar Kochba. The Jewish people in Rabbi Akiva’s generation were in mourning. They were experiencing tremendous grief, sorrow and hopelessness. Rabbi Akiva is the Tana who brings the message of hope and of future redemption amidst great destruction and tragedy.
Two well known examples of this are taught at the end of Gemara Makot. The aggadita explains that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking. They heard the noise of the Romans from 120 miles away. While the other Chachamim cried, Rabbi Akiva laughed.
The Chachamim asked Rabbi Akiva: Why are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva responded: Why are you crying?
The Chachamim answered that the Romans bow down to idols and bring incense to them, the Beit HaMikdash is burned, how can we not cry?!
Rabbi Akiva responded: That is why I laugh. If Hashem gives such reward to those who sin, how much greater will be the reward of those who do God's will.
The second scenario occurs on another occasion. The same Chachamim were going to Yerushalyim. When they reached Har haTzofim, they tore their clothes. When they reached Har HaBayit, they saw a fox emerge from the Kodesh ha'Kodoshim. The Chachamim cried. Rabbi Akiva laughed.
The Chachamim were appalled and asked Rabbi Akiva: Why are you laughing?!
R. Akiva answered: Why are you crying? The Chachamim respond, Regarding the Beit HaMikdash it says "Veha'Zar ha'Karev Yumat" the non-cohen who approaches will die. Now foxes go there, how can we not cry?!
Rabbi Akiva, in his opptomistic tone said: That is why I laugh - "V'A'ida Li Edim Ne'emanim Et Uriyah ha'Kohen v'Et Zecharyah."
I will take for Me faithful witnesses to record, Urihya haKohen and Zecharya. Uriah, at the time of the first Beit HaMikdash said that Har Habait would be plowed over. Zecharia at the time of the second Beit HaMikdash prophesied that people would return to Zion. Rabbi Akiva explained that now that he saw Uria’s statement fulfilled he knew that Zacharia’s would also come to be.
The Jews in that generation experienced intense sorrow and a genuine feeling of grief, hopelessness and dejection, and Rabbi Akiva was the one who brought the message of hope and optimism.
In the Midrash, we zero in on Rabbi Akiva who sees his audience "sleeping," depressed and lifeless. Rav Ginzburg recognized that this was a time period that the people in Rabbi Akiva's shiur were disheartened by the fact that their many good deeds, including learning Torah seemed worthless. Their good deeds seemed to have no effect in sparing them from God's harsh decrees. Rabbi Akiva therefore consoled them with the knowledge that one's meritorious acts often facilitate their most profound effects only years or even centuries later. The merit of Sara's drive, vision and goodness saved Am Yisrael, as Esther was placed in the royal palace as queen when the annihilation edict was issued. Though the people may not recognize the Hand of God at that point in time, their efforts will eventually be rewarded even if it takes place many years later.
Sarah confronted the possibility that there would not be a continuation of hers and Avraham’s teaching, effectively, the end of the Jewish people. She counters this by offering Hagar to Avraham so that the Jewish people could continue, as promised through Avraham’s offspring. Obviously this was not an easy act for her to do. Esther, also faced with end of the Jewish people, puts herself at risk to confront the situation. In both times, just when it seems as though all hope is lost, God came to our assistance. Herein lies the significance of the connection between Sara and Esther: Let Sara come and bring optimism that the Jewish people will survive when all seems lost. Esther takes the initiative, carries Sara’s message of hope when it seems to have vanished.
This, perhaps, was how Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist, offered encouragement and solace to his generation who desperately needed to be unified and awakened.
What a critical message for us this week! The message of optimism amidst the brutal arsenal fires spreading across the forests in Israel, placing our Israeli brothers and sisters at great risk. We need to support our soldiers and give chizzuk to medinat Yisrael. We must stay focused with the determination that the Jewish people are eternal: "netzach Yisrael lo Yishtakair" (Shmuel I 15:21). We daven for the Israeli citizens to be safe and secure amidst these destructive attacks on the people and land.
Moreover, there was a terrible incident which occured in Raanana: A Reform Shul in Raanana was vandalized by Jewish religious fundamentalists, including a display of knives directed towards certain named people. (http://www.timesofisrael.com/raanana-reform-synagogue-vandalized-death-threats-left-with-knife/).
As a people, when threatened internally or externally, we remind ourselves of the value of each Jewish person despite halakhic and practical differences in our observance and worship. We must remain confident and positive with the knowledge that all of Bnei Yisrael stood at Har Sinai. We were all recipients of the Torah that we teach and learn. When some of the leadership fail to see that, there is a danger in our people being redirected away from the upward trajectory of Torah scholarship, ahavat Yisrael and kavod haBriyot. Our shul community along with other institutions serves Hashem with integrity, believing that all of Klal Yisrael can benefit from the inclusion of all voices and ideas.
May this give us hope amidst the disappointment and may we as a people experience peace for our people and BE"H, to have peace in our land.