There is a custom at the Friday night Shabbos table to sing the ancient hymn known as “Eshes Chayil” - A Woman of Valor - which is found in the concluding chapter of the Book of Proverbs. The Midrash cites a tradition that it was composed by Avraham as an eulogy to Sarah, and it later became part of the Book of Proverbs (Midrash Tanchuma on Genesis 24:1). Within this eulogy to Sarah, we find the following words of praise:
"She spreads out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute." (Proverbs 31:20)
Sarah was therefore devoted to "tzedakah" - deeds which express the tzedek ideal. In fact, the Midrash Rabbah states that the doors of Sarah's tent “were open wide” - a metaphor for her hospitality, as well as a metaphor for her willingness to welcome the female spiritual seekers of her generation. The Midrash also mentions that "a blessing was bestowed upon her dough" (Genesis Rabbah 60:16). In his commentary on this Midrash, the Tiferes Zion, a 20th century sage of Jerusalem, explains that the "blessing" on her dough means that she managed to feed all the needy guests; there was always enough for everyone.
In Sarah's tent, adds the Midrash, "a lamp burned from the eve of one Shabbos to the eve of the following Shabbos." The "light" from her Shabbos lamp lasted all week until the arrival of the following Shabbos. Is there a relationship between the continuous light of Sarah's Shabbos lamp and the deeds of tzedakah that she performed? When there is no light, we cannot see each other. As it is written regarding the plague of darkness which struck the Egyptians, "No man could see his brother" (Exodus 10:23). A Chassidic sage, known as the Chidushei Ha-Rim, comments:
"The worst darkness is when one person does not want to see his suffering brother and extend to him assistance." (May'nah Shel Torah, Vol. 2).
A selfish person is unable to "see" others. The lamps that we light each Shabbos are to inspire us to truly see others - to recognize their purpose within the creation and to see what they need in order to fulfill their purpose. The “light” of Sarah's Shabbos lamp lasted from one Shabbos to another, and throughout the week people were able to see each other and help each other. All who came under her influence abandoned the darkness of selfishness, for they were drawn to the continuous “light” within her tent.
The Midrash describing Sarah's tent mentions one more unique quality: "A cloud hovered over the entrance to her tent." According to our tradition, the hovering "cloud" indicates the closeness of the Shechinah. A reference to this idea can be found in the following verse regarding the “Mishkan” – the “Dwelling Place” of the Shechinah – which was built by Moses and the Children of Israel:
"The cloud covered the Tent of the Meeting, and the glory of the Compassionate One filled the Mishkan." (Exodus 40:34) – The cloud covered the Tent and the Shechinah - the Glory of the Compassionate One - dwelled therein. (Targum Yonasan and the Sforno)
The cloud over Sarah’s tent indicated that the Shechinah – Who is called “tzedek” - was drawn to Sarah's tent, for her deeds were an expression of tzedek. Her home was open to those in need, she shared her bread with the hungry, and through the "light" of her continuously burning Shabbos lamp, people were able to truly "see" each other all the days of the week.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The teaching that the “light” of the Shabbos lamps leads to “tzedakah” – the sharing of our resources with those in need - can be found in the following Midrash:
“In the future, the nations will be drawn to your light, as it says, ‘And nations will walk by your light’ (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will shine upon Israel? It is the light of tzedakah, as it says, ‘But to you who are in awe of My name, the sun of tzedakah will shine’ (Malachi 3:20). And why did they merit this? It is in the merit of the lamps that they lit for Shabbos.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8)
2. The original ArtScroll commentary on Genesis has a beautiful essay titled "Sarah's Temple" which discusses how the special qualities of Sarah’s tent mentioned above were duplicated in the Mishkan and in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. (Overview to Parshas Chayei Sarah, pages 832-835)
For example, the Temple had “open doors” welcoming those who were seeking the Compassionate One. In addition, the 12 loaves of the Temple show-bread were blessed and remained fresh from Shabbos to Shabbos. There was also continuous light from the western lamp of the Menorah; moreover, the Shechinah dwelled within. These special qualities of the Temple served as a reminder that our spiritual life in the Land of Israel is to be modeled after the spiritual life which flourished in Sarah's tent.