The Torah in Parashat Chayei-Sara tells of Yitzchak’s marriage to Rivka. Rashi (24:67), citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 60:16), lists three supernatural phenomena that regularly occurred in the tent of Yitzchak’s mother, Sara, during her lifetime. These no longer occurred after her death, but they returned after Yitzchak’s marriage to Rivka, thus bringing him comfort from his grief over the loss of his mother. One of these three phenomena is a cloud that was attached to the tent. Rashi states simply that the cloud was “attached over the tent,” whereas the Midrash’s formulation is that the cloud clung specifically to the entrance of Sara’s tent.
Different explanations have been offered for the symbolic meaning of this Midrashic description, one of which is that the cloud signifies humility and privacy. The presence of a cloud by the entrance to a home indicates that the home is out of public view. Although Avraham was a public figure, a leader with a large following who regularly convened with kings, the home was kept private, and Sara herself did not seek fame or recognition. Indeed, when Avraham hosted guests, they ate outside the entrance of the tent, and Sara was inside (18:10). And the only significant actions that the Torah describes Sara undertaking related to family affairs – having Avraham marry her maidservant to produce children, and later, persuading Avraham to drive Hagar and Yishmael from the home. The Midrash thus perhaps points to Sara’s strictly private persona, how she insisted on keeping herself and her family affairs private, despite Avraham’s very public persona.
On this basis, we might suggest to an explanation to another Midrashic passage (Bereishit Rabba 58:3) which draws an association between Sara and Queen Ester. The Midrash tells that Rabbi Akiva once noticed that his audience was dozing, and in an effort to arouse their interest, he noted that the number 127 is both the number of years that Sara lived, as well as the number of provinces in Achashverosh’s empire. Rabbi Akiva said, “Let Ester, who was a descendant of Sara, who lived for 127 years, come and rule over 127 provinces.” We might suggest that Rabbi Akiva draws our attention here to the stark contrast between Sara, a private person who kept her affairs out of the public view, and her descendant Ester, who became the queen of a vast kingdom. Rabbi Akiva’s message is that the power to impact the world comes from the “cloud attached to the entrance of the tent,” from our private conduct, from the good deeds we perform without fanfare and publicity. Ester earned the privilege of “governing,” of wielding widespread influence, because of the quality of Sara – because of her private nature.
At times we find ourselves “falling asleep” as we try to learn Torah and perform mitzvot. We feel uninspired, unmotivated, and discouraged because we do not see our actions as having any significant effect upon the world. As we do our work in our “tent,” behind a “cloud,” tending to our private pursuit of Torah knowledge and our meticulous observance of mitzvot, we occasionally experience some degree of lethargy and lack of fulfillment. Rabbi Akiva seeks to reenergize us and kindle our religious passion by reminding us that Ester’s ability to impact the world is rooted in Sara’s “tent,” that our effort to influence society begins with our work inside our “tents,” with our quiet, private actions performed without publicity or recognition.