Chayei Sarah תשפא
This week’s portion begins with Sarah’s passing at age 127. The Torah reports that her years were all equally righteous and that Sarah lived a perfect life. Now it became Avraham’s responsibility to bury her in an appropriate place.
It is remarkable how much attention Avraham and the Torah gave to the seemingly simple matter of where to bury Sarah. The Torah, which is usually very terse, uses 20 verses, comprising 275 words, to describe in great detail Avraham’s purchase of the burial plot from Ephron the Hittite. Why so much to do about where a person’s body finds its final resting place? Isn’t the body just the canister that held the soul during one’s lifetime? Now that the soul is gone, just bury it anywhere.
The place that Avraham chose to bury his holy wife was called the מערת המכפלה – The Double Cave. Although it had been known as such for many years, no one really knew the basis for this peculiar name. The Midrash tells us that the day that the angels came to inform Avraham and Sarah that they would be having a child, Avraham ran to find an animal worthy of serving to his guests. He spotted one, but it ran away from him. He chased it and it led him into the cave. The moment Avraham entered the cave, he sensed an aura of holiness that emanated from the ground and realized that Adam and Chava were buried there. From that point on, Avraham and Sarah aspired to be buried there with these two holy people.
Although Rashi gives two reasons why it was called מכפלה – double, my Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל offered the following explanation.
The Torah begins with the verse:
(א) בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
1) In the beginning of Hashem’s creating the heavens and the earth…
The Torah begins with the second letter of the alphabet, ב – bet, whose numerical value is 2, indicating one beginning comprising two parts, as if to say that there are two beginnings here. They are (1) Heaven and (2) Earth. Earth is where we perform our service to Hashem, and the heaven is where we will go to receive the reward for our deeds.
The word ארץ – earth comes from the word רץ , which means to run. When one runs, as opposed to flees, he always has a destination, a place he is trying to reach. Where is this world running? What is the destination of one’s existence on this earth? שם – there! The heavens. The word שמים (plural for שם) means all the “there”s.
Putting it all together, the Torah teaches us that in the beginning Hashem created (1) the journey – this earth where we do the running, and (2) the destination, the world to come, the heavens and the reward, the goal of all the running.
While heaven and earth from our perspective look as far away from each other as, well, heaven and earth, in reality they are two sides of the same coin. When one dedicates his life on this world towards the world to come, his life in heaven will be an exact reflection of his life here on earth. In this sense, the world to come is a “double” (כפל) of this world.
This is why the cave that contained Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, and, later, Yitzchak and Rivkah and Yaakov and Leah was called מכפלה” “. These were all people who lived their lives in this world for the sole purpose of the world to come. In their cases, their world to come was a duplicate of their lives on this world.
There is something missing from this metaphor. While it is easy to see this world reflected in the world to come, where do we see the converse, namely, the world to come reflected in this world? There seems to be no manifestation of the spiritual next world in this, our current physical world.
Although we cannot see the results of the mitzvot that we do, they are part of us nonetheless. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says (4:2):
(ב) בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה (כְּבַחֲמוּרָה), וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה. שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה. שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה. וּשְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה, עֲבֵרָה
2) Ben Azay says, run to perform an easy mitzvah (just as you would to a difficult one), and flee from sin. For one mitzvah causes another mitzvah, and one sin causes another sin. For the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward for a sin is a sin.
The conventional understanding of this Mishna is that the reward for a mitzvah brings as its reward the opportunity to do another mitzvah. Our Sages, however, teach us otherwise. The reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself that you performed. How is that? That mitzvah is now part of you and contributes to who you are. Through the performance of the mitzvah you have become a holier person.
This is the mechanism through which a person grows in holiness. As he chooses spiritual deeds, each deed is incorporated into him and increases his spiritual level, overtaking some of his earthiness. In the course of life, one can transform his body from something earthy to something quite holy.
This is man’s purpose on this earth, to reach the heavens, while right here on the earth, through making his life on this world a double of his life in the world to come.
This is why it was so important to Avraham that he and Sarah be buried there. The cave and its name carried a profound twofold message to the world, one which Avraham and Sarah had dedicated their lives to teaching: (1) The purpose of this world is the next world, and (2) Here lie the holy people whose lives on this world were lived completely for the next world. Their resting place on earth was the sanctuary for their holy bodies on this earth and a testament to the holy lives they led.
Our Sages teach us (Tana Devei Eliyahu 25) that we are obligated to aspire to be like our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
לפיכך הייתי אומר שכל אחד ואחד מישראל חייב לומר מתי יגיעו מעשי למעשה אבותי אברהם יצחק ויעקב
The goal of a Jew is to reach the level the Forefathers reached, which allowed them burial in the מערת המכפלה where their lives on this world mirrored perfectly the life they would have in the world to come. But even if we are unsuccessful in reaching perfection as they did, we can still achieve a significant level of spirituality and holiness!
This is why we treat the body with the utmost respect. It has holiness, and it must be treated as such.
This is also why the Torah has commanded that a dead body be buried in the ground, as opposed to any other method of treatment. King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes (12:7):
(ז) וְיָשֹׁב הֶעָפָר עַל הָאָרֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָה וְהָרוּחַ תָּשׁוּב אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נְתָנָהּ:
7) The body will return to the earth from which it came, and the spirit will return to Hashem who gave it.
Man was created from the earth, and placing it back in the earth returns it to its home. This is the most respectful place for it.
The following law illustrates the extreme importance of respect to a dead body by burying it.
A Cohen, one of the priestly family, is not permitted to come in contact with a dead body. He may not enter a room with a dead body in it or even an open a graveyard. Yet, if a close relative passes away, a Cohen may defile himself to attend the funeral. “Close relatives” are his father, mother, wife, brother, sister, son, and daughter. The one exception to this rule Is the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, who may not even attend the funeral of his close relatives. He is considered so holy that he may have no contact with death at all.
There is, however, one instance where even the High Priest must actually bury a dead body: Where there is no one else to do so. For example, if the High Priest found a corpse on a deserted road or in a field and there is no one to bury it, he must bury the body himself. So important is the honor of the dead body of a Jew that even the High Priest may not leave it unburied. The High Priest himself, who is forbidden to attend the funeral of even his own mother, father, son, or daughter, must defile himself to bury a random body found on the road.
The dead body of a Jew is not like the glass bottle that held a very expensive wine, such that when the wine is gone, you just toss the bottle without a thought. Through the many mitzvot that the person did, and through the Torah that he learned, his body became holy. It must therefore be treated with the utmost respect, which explains why every Jewish grave is, to a degree, aמכפלה .
There is living proof to this concept. There are many documented cases of holy Sages whose bodies had to be exhumed for some reason. When they were exhumed, they were found to be whole and as fresh and supple as the day that they were buried. Since their bodies were completely holy, they were not subject to decay. These people were also buried in a מכפלה.
When Avraham completed the purchase of the burial plot from Ephron, the Torah tells us (23:17):
(יז) וַיָּקָם שְׂדֵה עֶפְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּכְפֵּלָה
20) And Ephron’s field with the cave in it was confirmed…
Rashi takes the word ויקם, which also means “and it stood up,” literally and explains that the field and cave actually became elevated by leaving the hands of a commoner and entering the possession of a king.
– תקומה היתה לו שיצא מיד הדיוט ליד מלך
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains this concept in the first chapter of his work The Path of the Just.
ואם תעמיק עוד בענין תראה כי העולם נברא לשימוש האדם. אמנם הנה הוא עומד בשיקול גדול. כי אם האדם נמשך אחר העולם ומתרחק מבוראו, הנה הוא מתקלקל, ומקלקל העולם עמו. ואם הוא שולט בעצמו ונדבק בבוראו ומשתמש מן העולם רק להיות לו לסיוע לעבודת בוראו, הוא מתעלה והעולם עצמו מתעלה עמו. כי הנה עילוי גדול הוא לבריות כולם בהיותם משמשי האדם השלם המקודש בקדושתו יתברך
If you look into this deeply you will see that the entire world was created for man’s use. However, it stands in a delicate balance. If man pursues the pleasures of this world as an end unto themselves, taking himself far away from Hashem, he ruins himself and the world with him. If, however, he controls himself and clings to Hashem, using the resources of the world only as tools to serve Hashem, he elevates himself and the entire world with him. For it is a great merit for the resources in the world to serve the human being who is sanctified with Hashem’s holiness.
This applies to the human body as well as to all material matter in the world. They become sanctified and hallowed having been used to bring a person closer to Hashem.
Another very important message is inherent in there being a physical manifestation of one’s life on this earth in the form of a resting place for his body. During one’s terrestrial life, he impacts the earth and its inhabitants in many different ways. When one leaves the world, his accomplishments don’t evaporate and leave the world with him; they remain here, continuing to impact the world. Leaving the body in the earth connects the deceased to all the deeds that he left on the world. Not to leave a person’s body here on the earth is like saying he exists no longer in any form, and he has had no influence on the world. He and his influence have disappeared.
There is one more very important point. The Torah teaches that the dead will live again. There will be תחיית המתים – resurrection of the dead. Body and soul will be reunited so as to pay the body for hosting the soul during its time here on earth. (Ezekiel Chapter 37 relates an account of Ezekiel resurrecting a large group of dried bones.) Placing the body in the ground is like planting a kernel of wheat. When you put it into the ground, first it disintegrates, then a stalk appears with many kernels of wheat on it, each with their own many layers of bran.
This is what will happen with the dead bodies placed in the ground. Even though they disintegrate, when the proper time comes, they will be reconstituted and once again come alive. It is like planting a seed for the future.
Many are familiar with the Mishna that says -כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא – “All of Yisrael have a place in the world to come.” The “world to come” here means the new world that will begin with the resurrection of the dead. What many do not know is that the Mishna continues and lists those who will not be resurrected. The very first on the list is someone who does not believe that it will happen! If someone does not believe in it, he, per his belief, will not participate in it. A person who opts not to be buried is really saying that he does not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and, as such, will truly not be entitled to resurrection.
Our Sages teach us that this applies only to one who has elected not to be buried; someone who died in a fire, or perished in an oven in the Holocaust, will be resurrected when the time comes. Hashem will lovingly collect the ashes and restore them to life.
The Talmud teaches us (Gittin 56b) that when King Titus, who destroyed the second Holy Temple, died, he commanded them to burn him and spread his ashes over the seven seas so that the “G-d of the Jews” should not find him and punish him. The Talmud then tells the story of his nephew Onkelos who wanted to convert to Judaism:
אמר ליה דיניה דההוא גברא במאי אמר ליה במאי דפסיק אנפשיה כל יומא מכנשי ליה לקיטמיה ודייני ליה וקלו ליה ומבדרו אשב ימי
Before he converted, Onkelos brought up King Titus’s soul from the dead and asked him, “What is your punishment in the world to come?” Titus answered, “The very punishment that I decreed upon myself: Every day, Hashem collects my ashes, judges me, and then burns me again and spreads my ashes over the seven seas.”
If Hashem can collect Titus’s ashes from the seven seas to punish him, He will surely collect the ashes of those who perished in the ovens of Auschwitz to reward them with a new life in the “world to come.”
Hence, burial is actually like planting; for we are placing the body in the earth from which it will be reborn in the future. May we merit the coming of Mashiach and resurrection of the dead, speedily in our times.