Sarah and Rebecca: Sunset, Sunrise (More Midrash Ep. 5)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 58:2

“The sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1:5). Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Don’t we know that the sun rises and sets? Rather (this is what it means): When the Holy One causes the sun of a righteous person to set, [God also] causes the sun of their companion to shine forth.

The day that Rabbi Akiba died, our Rabbi (Judah the Prince) was born and it was written about him, “The sun rises and the sun sets.”
On the day that our Rabbi died Rabbi Ada bar Ahava was born and it was written about him “The sun rises and the sun sets.”
On the day that Rabbi Ada bar Ahava died, Rabbi Avin was born and it was written about him “The sun rises and the sun sets.”
On the day that Rabbi Avin died, his son Rabbi Avin was born.
The day that Rabbi Avin died, Aba Hoshaya from Traya was born. The day that Aba Hoshaya died Rabbi Hoshaya was born and it was written about him “The sun rises and the sun sets.”

Before the sun of Moses set the sun of Joshua shone forth as it is written, “God said to Moses, take Joshua son of Nun” (Numbers 27:18). Before the sun of Joshua set the sun of Itaniel son of Kenaz shone forth as it is said, “Itaniel son of Kenaz took it” (Judges 1:13).

Before the sun of Eli the priest set, the sun of Samuel shone forth, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out and Samuel lay on the sanctuary of God” (1 Samuel 3:3). Rabbi Yochanan said: Like a perfect calf.

Before God causes the sun of Sarah to set, God causes the sun of Rebecca to shine forth. For first it says “Milcah too has borne children” (Genesis 22:20) and after “and the life of Sarah was one hundred twenty-seven years…” (Genesis 23:1).

Understanding the Midrash

In the biblical text, we learn the lineage of Abraham’s brother Nachor right before we learn that Sarah dies. The midrash understands this juxtaposition meaningfully, with the phrase from Kohelet, “The sun rises, and the sun sets.” This phrase could mean that everything has a natural life span. It also could mean, and in context probably does mean, that there are natural cycles that persist. Sun rises, sun sets, sun rises, sun sets. Our midrash is a variant on this idea of cycles, specifically laying out an idea that the “sun” of a generation will always be present. When one sun sets, another rises. In other words, when one leader or luminary dies, another is ready to lead and illuminate.

The midrash lists a chain of seven rabbis who were the sun of their generation, dying and being born simultaneously.

We get a chain of three, from Moses to Joshua to Itaniel. This transfers from the Mosaic leadership model to the model of the judges.

We get a chain of two, from Eli to Samuel.

We get a chain of two, from Sarah to Rebecca.

In most of these cases, there is no genealogical inheritance of leadership, as in the kingship (which would obviously not work well with one dying on the day the successor was born). When it is unclear how or who the next urgently-needed leader will be, this miraculous birth of new sun is invoked. This idea reminds me of reincarnating leaders in other traditions, such as the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. This midrash is less mystical, but no less mysterious in asserting a bright continuity through the potentially dark and turbulent transition of leadership.

Of the midrashim we’ve encountered so far, this is one of the simpler ones, illustrating a single theme. But the more I think about the theme of sunset and sunrise, the more remarkable it seems. So much depends on key people inspiring a community, teaching the cultural values, shedding light on problems and potentials. As I think of all of the people who have held that responsibility with love and dignity, without whom I would not be here learning midrash with you, I am in awe, and I sense God’s presence in the chain of tradition.

And I am also aware that we cannot always be sure who the sun of a generation is, which means each one of us holds the responsibility to bring light to our generation, and to ensure that among the things we pass on to the next generation is an awareness of our divine capacity for caring, a quality that Rebecca embodies.