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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5780 — 11/23/2019

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5780 — 11/23/2019

Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her. (23:2)

Although our parashah is named Chayei Sarah / “The Life of Sarah,” it is really concerned with her death and burial. There appear to be some issues with the verse however. To begin with, Sarah is described as having died in Chevron, while Avraham had to come from somewhere to bury her. Why were they not together? Where did Avraham come from? Since the family was supposedly living in Beer Sheva, what was Sarah doing in Chevron in the first place?

Rashi and Ramban debate these questions. Rashi says that Avraham came from Beer Sheva. This does not mean, apparently, that the two were living apart – rather, they were living in Chevron and Avraham had gone to Beer Sheva for some temporary purpose. (The two cities are 26 miles distant by air. Google maps says it “cannot calculate driving directions” between the two; this is obviously a political statement as there is a highway between the two. Interesting, Google maps correctly identifies the so-called “Green Line” as the “1949 Armistice Line” and not as any kind of recognized boundary.)

Ramban points out that there is a Midrash that says Avraham was coming from Mt. Moriah, i.e. from the Akeidah (which ended the previous parashah). It was the shock of hearing that her son had almost been slaughtered on the altar that was too much for her to take and her soul left her. His own opinion differs – he holds that the family was actually living in Chevron, and as for Avraham’s “coming” to eulogize Sarah, he holds that it just means that Avraham came to Sarah’s tent from his own tent – separate tents were apparently the norm back then, as evidenced elsewhere in the Patriarchal period (e.g. “Avraham pitched Sarah’s tent before his own” in the Midrash, each of Ya’akov’s four wives had her own tent, etc.).

Or haChaim, as appears to often be the case, doesn’t rehash older disputes or rehearse older explanations. Instead, he takes a different angle entirely, treating the place names as pointing to deeper realities:

In saying Kiryat-Arba [lit: “City of Four”] the Torah conveys, by way of allusion, that “Death” does not really apply to the righteous, Heaven forbid! Rather her [Sarah’s] soul became detached and took leave of her body which is called “Kiryat Arba,” meaning, “the city that was built from the four elements” – but her soul continued to live. When it then says, “which is Chevron,” it means that even though Sarah died, she continued to impart to [her elements] the capacity to remain somewhat connected [m’chubarim from the same root as Chevron]. For even when the righteous die, their bodies do not become completely devoid of life, [as our Sages teach, Berachot 18a] that the righteous are considered alive even after they die.

Let me first point out that there is a principle that “a verse does not move away from its plain meaning.” Or haChaim does not imply that Sarah was not physically at Chevron / Kiryat Arba; rather he is elucidating a deeper meaning in the names. Whether Sarah was to die in this place because of the implication of those names, or the implications became clear only on account of Sarah’s death there, I don’t know. Perhaps the answer to that conundrum is that the names and the history, both of which are known to Gd, fit together as a coherent whole from which one piece cannot be removed.

Whatever the reason Sarah died in Chevron, Or haChaim’s statements about what happens when a wholly righteous person dies are pretty extraordinary! According to the thinking of the times that he lived, everything physical was composed of various combinations of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. (The soul, that which is quintessentially us, is a different, non-physical element, the ether.) The changes that take place – growth and decay for example – are reflections of shifting degrees and intensities of the combination of the elements. Or haChaim goes on to explain the reason why the bodies of great saints do not disintegrate:

The righteous, while they are in this world, transform the material quality of the elements [of their body] into the holy, spiritual quality of the soul, through the good deeds and the extraordinary Torah that they endeavor to perform in this world.

Torah resides in the transcendental field, and I have expressed the opinion that real Torah study is much more than an academic exercise. Rather, if Torah is going to be “very close to [us], in [our] mouths and in [our] hearts,” then Torah study must involve repeatedly bringing our awareness to that transcendental field until our souls are purified of sin and our bodies of stress and strain, and our hearts and minds are functioning normally. Then the transcendent becomes permanently established on the level of awareness – we become Torah.

Apparently, according to Or haChaim, when the body and soul are purified to such a level, the very material properties of the body are transformed in such a way that the usual processes of decay do not take place and the body remains integrated, pure and whole. I might point out that there are similar traditions all over the world, in varied cultures and languages, so it seems like there’s something to it.

Our Sages tell us “Ya’akov our forebear never died” (Taanit 5b). This obviously did not refer to his soul, as nobody’s soul dies – the soul is immortal. Rather, it appears that what happens is the body (of a great saint) is so etherialized, soul-like, that it maintains some of the life force that animated it. The soul goes on to its reward, detached from the body, but the body remains more or less as it was – pure and whole as in life. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!

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I’d like to discuss another point that is off the main topic. In both this parashah and the next, a complicated series of negotiations (Avraham’s purchase of the burial cave in Chayei Sarah and Yitzchak’s negotiations over a covenant with Avimelech in Toledot), which are described very tersely in the text, are analyzed according to the rules and categories codified in the Talmud almost two millennia later. Furthermore, not only do Avraham and Yitzchak , who “kept the whole Torah even before it was given,” as we explained in parashat Lech L’cha, play by these rules,  but so did their pagan interlocutors! Did the whole world study the laws of oaths and acquisitions?!

Biblical critics note that there are strong similarities between portions of the Torah and roughly contemporary codes of law, such as the Code of Hammurabi and the like. They take this as evidence that Torah is merely part of a larger cultural context that evolved in the ancient Near East. Presumably Hammurabi didn’t make up his code ex nihilo either. This idea is, of course, in sharp contrast to the belief that Gd gave Moshe Rabbeinu the Torah at Mt. Sinai. On the level of current academic discourse, the two positions seem to be irreconcilable.

If, on the other hand, we accept the view of the Zohar that the Torah is the eternal “blueprint of creation,” I see no surprise that there are common threads in the law of all cultures. All cultures’ laws must reflect the most fundamental value of natural law, the “supernal Torah” that exists with Gd eternally. That Torah gets as if projected onto our plane in a form that meets our needs. We may believe that Moshe’s cognition of the supernal Torah and his projection of that cognition into the Torah that we have is the most pure and perfect cognition, but there is no reason to believe, in my opinion, that it was the only one. Perhaps a wise man at Hammurabi’s court cognized/projected the “supernal Torah,” colored by his particular nervous system and cultural milieu, and presented the code to the king for promulgation. We would then expect to find many common elements, coming not from a common human source, but from a common Divine source.

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Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Chayei Sarah

After Sarah passes, with Gd’s Presence in her as it was and is in Avraham, Avraham sends his servant, Eliezar, to look for a spouse for his son, Isaac.

What qualities would we want in a servant who we send to an unfamiliar world to select a spouse for our beloved child?

What strategy would the servant use to select exactly the right spouse?

Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezar to look for a wife for his son Isaac.

Abraham trusts not only Eliezar’s loyalty but his competence—his competence on zeroing in on the right bride and his judgment in making sure the bride really is the right bride.

Eliezar’s strategy is not to stay within his limited ability but to ask Gd for guidance. As he approaches a well in the country to which he is sent he prays in his heart that Gd will bring a woman to the well who will offer to give him not only a drink from her pitcher that he asks for but also that she will offer to provide water for his camels also. Eliezar values generosity as a sign of love and appropriateness.

Before he even finishes this prayer, a woman appears who fulfills his request.

This a sign of considerable purity in Eliezar and also in the woman, who is Rebekah and who becomes Isaac’s wife.

Rebekah leads Eliezar to her family and Eliezer explains his mission: to find a bride for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.

“Will you marry him?” his family asks.

“Yes, I will,” Rebekah replies, a sign not only of generosity but of her own judgment that Eliezar is connecting her with the love that Gd intends for her, a marriage that will enable her to be not only a good and happy wife, but a good servant of Gd.

“Will you leave tomorrow?” Eliezar asks.

“Yes, I will,” Rebekah replies, a sign of trust.

And when Rebekah meets Isaac they love each other and Isaac is comforted for the loss of his mother, proof that Eliezar was a good and competent servant, one who fulfilled his master’s wishes, one to whom Gd responds even before the wish of his heart is completely stated.

In our lives we do our best “to love Gd with all our heart and soul” and “to love our neighbor as our self” so that we are good servants of ourselves, our families, our communities and Gd and also we are trusting recipients of Gd’s messengers and servants.

We do our best to be trustable, competent, loving, generous and to welcome in the Shekinah, Gd’s bride, not only on Shabbat but every moment and to be Gd’s bride ourselves. And beyond this experience, we seek to restore ourselves and to be restored to the Oneness, within which the duality of Gd and us exists.

The sound and meaning of this parshah help us in this delightful activity.

Baruch HaShem.