Something which is holy is also protected and, to a certain extent, hidden. The Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, was the most sacred place in the world. One way its holiness is expressed is through the fact that nobody could ever go there — except the High Priest on Yom Kippur.

Similarly, and more familiar to us, the Torah scroll is holy. Usually, it is kept behind a curtain in the Ark. When the Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark this is felt to be a special occasion, and everyone in the synagogue stands up. It is still within a mantle, and only when it is brought to the bimah (reading table) is the mantle removed. If the Torah scroll is carried to another location it is usually wrapped in a tallit, as an extra covering expressing its sanctity.

Our parshah (the Torah reading of Vayeira, Genesis 18-22) tells us something about womanhood: that womanhood is sacred, and has great spiritual power. And it also tells us that feminine modesty is a profound aspect of human life, making a woman beloved to her husband.

The parshah begins by telling us about three angels who visit Abraham. They are disguised as travelers. They ask Abraham: "Where is Sarah your wife?" He answers: "She is in the tent."1

Rashi, the great Bible commentator, discloses a level of meaning within these words which might not be immediately apparent. As we learn elsewhere in the Torah, Sarah is a very beautiful woman.2 By affirming that she is in the tent, rather than standing in all her beauty before the three visiting men, there is a subtle hint to the idea that Sarah is modest. Why should the angels wish to hint at Sarah's modesty? Rashi says "in order to make her beloved to her husband."

Modesty expresses inner beauty and hints at the deep spirituality and holiness which is the inner nature of womanhood. In certain ways the woman represents the Shechinah, the Divine Presence in the world. The quality of the feminine is the point where the physical and the sacred join.

The angels have come to tell Abraham and Sarah that Sarah will bear a child. Perhaps the hint to her modesty, thus making her yet more beloved to her husband, is part of their mission.

Modesty is an ideal which is central in Jewish life. It affects not only clothes, but also speech and behavior. As defined by Jewish law, modesty concerns men as well as women. But in popular consciousness, it is specially relevant to the woman. Modesty expresses the inner beauty and also spiritual power of womanhood.

The ideal of modesty does not mean at all that the woman is hidden from society. According to the Sages, Sarah provides a key example of a woman who taught others and gave spiritual inspiration to the women of her time.3 Modesty is a fine value, but it is not taken to the extremes apparent in some societies.

Later on the parshah speaks of the spiritual insight of Sarah, which was in fact greater than that of Abraham. G‑d says to Abraham: "Listen to the voice of Sarah, and do everything that she tells you."4 Rashi comments that this means: "Listen to the voice of the Divine Spirit within her. This teaches us that Abraham was second to Sarah in power of prophecy."

The Torah thus highlights several qualities of our great-great-grandmother Sarah: modesty, inner beauty, power to inspire others, and holiness. These are qualities which she has bequeathed to her daughters through the generations.