Common Numbers and Striving for Greatness by Rabbi Steven Finkelstein


Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with the Pasuk “VaYihyu Chayei Sarah Mei’ah Shanah VeEsrim Shanah VeSheva Shanim, Shenei Chayei Sarah,” “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (BeReishit 23:1). This Pasuk has several noteworthy features, namely the emphasis on the number of years in Sarah’s life. This is addressed by a puzzling Midrash recorded in BeReishit Rabbah which describes the scene in the study hall where the great Rabi Akiva taught Torah. The Midrash relates that as Rabi Akiva looked at his students, he saw that they had lost interest in his class; some even dozed off. Rabi Akiva, in an attempt to refocus his class, called out “What did Esther perceive that enabled her to rule over 127 provinces?” After receiving no answer, he told his students “Let Esther, who was the descendant of our matriarch Sarah who lived 127 years, come and rule over 127 provinces.” When the students heard this, they regained their focus and were reinvigorated.

This Midrash appears to be even more puzzling than the Pasuk it addressed. For one, did Rabi Akiva’s students actually get bored during what we would assume to be an extremely stimulating class? Also, if the students were in fact bored, why would a Midrash connecting Sarah and Esther regain the students’ interest? Last, what is the message we can learn from this Midrash?

Rav Eliyahu Dessler suggests that Rabi Akiva’s students were not paying attention during class not out of boredom or sleepiness. Rather, the student felt that the level towards which Rabi Akiva was pushing them was too high of a level; it was beyond their abilities. They were feeling down and discouraged, so they gave up and then lost their focus.

The great Rabi Akiva looked at his students and understood their apparent disinterest. He understood that in order to reinvigorate his students, he had to demonstrate to them that the high level of learning which he hoped they would eventually achieve, although slightly above their abilities, was the level at which he had to teach in order for them to grow in their learning. Rabi Akiva understood that if his students challenge themselves, then even if they do not completely achieve their goals in learning, they will at least have reached the upper limits of their potential.

In order to teach his intended lesson to his students, Rabi Akiva presented a Midrash about Queen Esther. In the Midrash, the number 127 was a reminder to Esther that she, a descendant of the great matriarch Sarah who lived 127 years, was now being placed in charge of an empire with 127 provinces. As a descendant of Sarah, she was inspired to achieve greatness and follow in her footsteps. Rav Zev Leff explains that Esther never reached Sarah’s level, but by striving to be like Sarah, she became the great Queen Esther.

We should learn from Rav Dessler’s and Rav Leff’s understanding of a fascinating Midrash the importance of striving to improve ourselves. We should never be content with the level at which we currently are. If we constantly strive to improve ourselves in all aspects of life, then we will hopefully merit the same status which Queen Esther attained.

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