The opening verse of Parashat Chayei-Sara tells us that Sara died at the age of 127. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 58:3) tells an unusual story of Rabbi Akiva, who observed that this number is also the number of provinces that comprised the Persian kingdom under King Achashverosh during the time of the Purim story (Ester 1:1). Rabbi Akiva was delivering a lecture, the Midrash relates, and he noticed that his students were beginning to doze off. In an effort to arouse their attention, Rabbi Akiva remarked that Ester rose to power and ruled over 127 provinces because she descended from Sara, who lived for 127 years. Many writers and darshanim have attempted to identify the specific point of connection between Sara and Ester, and to explain why Rabbi Akiva hoped this observation could help keep his audience awake during his lecture.
Rav Dov Weinberger, in his Shemen Ha-tov, suggests that Rabbi Akiva sought to draw a comparison between time and place. We intuitively recognize the difference between geographic locations, and realize that no two places on earth are identical. Time, by contrast, is commonly viewed linearly, as a simple continuum on which different points are not inherently different from one another. In our minds, the current moment is not fundamentally different from the moment that will occur one hour from now, or the moment ten minutes from now. Whereas geographic spaces are all quite evidently different and distinct, different points in time seem to us as basically the same. But Rabbi Akiva sought to impress upon his students that a person’s life is no different than a large area of territory. Just as a kingdom consists of numerous different regions, provinces, cities, municipalities, streets and buildings, none of which are precisely identical to any others, likewise, our lives consist of many years, months, days and hours, each with a distinct opportunity to offer. At any given moment in our lives, we are able to accomplish something unique, which cannot be accomplished at any other time. Although today might seem not all that different from yesterday, and tomorrow is not likely to be much different from today, the truth is that every moment in our lives finds us in a unique set of circumstances, thus affording us a unique opportunity. We might follow the same general schedule every day, but no two days are ever precisely the same. Something in our condition is bound to change from one day to the next, and thus each day offers us a new challenge and new opportunity for growth and achievement.
This is how Rabbi Akiva sought to “awaken” his drowsy audience. If they lacked the energy and passion to concentrate intently and stay awake, this is perhaps due to their lack of appreciation for the unique opportunity presented by each and every study session. Rabbi Akiva thus reminded them, and us, that every moment in time is unique and distinct, just like every place on our planet, and we must therefore make every effort we can to make the most of each one.