Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Life and Death

Life & Death
A Message for Parashat Hayei Sarah 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

In the opening scene of Parashat Hayei Sarah, Avraham approached the citizens of Hebron to purchase a burial place for Sarah. He curiously introduced himself to them as a “resident alien” (23:4). Paralleling his self-description to the Torah’s subsequent use of similar wording, this phrase appears to indicate a legal disadvantage.[1] Indeed, archaeologists have found that while the urban agriculturalists during the time of the Avot possessed familial burial plots in the cities, the general practice of nomadic shepherds was to bury in desolate lands that lay distant from civilization. Avraham’s request of a sepulcher for Sarah in Hebron, then, was a clear divergence from his social status, thereby deeming him a “resident alien.”[2]

Bearing in mind Sefer Bereshit’s aversion to the innovations of city-dwellers and its consistent depiction of Avraham’s life as a nomad,[3] his decision to bury in the city in the way of city-dwellers is particularly difficult to understand.
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Prominent thinker Leon Kass noted the Torah’s deliberate contrast between the burial of Yaakov at Me’arat ha-Makhpelah and the mummification of Yosef in Egypt, in the last chapter of Bereshit. He explained the significance:
The contrast between burial and embalming/mummification reveals a crucial difference between Israel and Egypt: the difference between the acceptance and the denial or defiance of death.
While embalming the body is an attempt at human control after death – to prevent decay and to beautify the body, burial accepts that we are “dust to dust” and submits to the impossibility of eternal life in this world.[4] Kass noted, as well, that the Egyptian counter-cultural custom of men to shave their beards was underlain by a similar drive, as shaving is “a perfect emblem of the Egyptian penchant to deny change and to conquer decay by human effort.”[5]

What was Avraham’s approach to life and death?
Consider this intriguing midrash:
Until Avraham, there was no old age, so that one who wished to speak with Avraham might mistakenly find himself speaking to Yitzhak, or one who wished to speak with Yitzhak might mistakenly find himself speaking to Avraham. But when Avraham came, he pleaded for old age, saying, “Master of the universe, You must make a visible distinction between father and son, between a youth and an old man, so that the old man may be honored by the youth.” God replied, “As you live, I shall begin with you.” So Avraham went off, passed the night, and arose in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair of his head and of his beard had turned white…[6]
The Hakhamim traced the origins of whitening hair – the paradigmatic mark of old age – to Avraham. They clarified its significance by imagining Avraham’s request and intent – that “the old man may be honored by the youth.” Avraham marched on a mission to establish a derekh Hashem in this world. He fought for faith in monotheism and the practice of justice and righteousness. But he knew that this undertaking would not be accomplished in his lifetime. As stated by God, “For I have embraced him so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereshit 18:19), Avraham was aware that this mission awaited his children’s completion. Trailblazing this path, Avraham prayed that his descendants honor their predecessor and continue upon it.

French-American philosopher Gabriel Rockhill wrote about his personal transition from fear of death to its wholehearted acceptance, in an article entitled “Why We Never Die.” Describing our continued existence after death, he wrote:
The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made … There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had – for better or for worse – on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.[7]
Leon Wieseltier similarly wrote that man’s death is “almost never complete,” explaining, “He survives himself in many ways, he leaves many traces of himself behind, in his works and in the people he loved.”[8] Seen from this angle, the deceased’s life continues after death by those who appreciate and continue their mission.

It is in this light that we may imagine that Avraham was not frightened by death, as were the Egyptians of old. Avraham was instead conscious of the mission that he had set into motion, and he strode confidently to the beat of a legacy that would live on long after death.
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Last week we explained that the danger of cities and human progress, as depicted by Sefer Bereshit, lies in their tendency to lead man to focus on his own “name,” instead of that of God. They pose the threat of becoming absorbed in our own accomplishments, and losing sight of our relationship with God. Since cities possess no inherent danger, and their evils lie only in active engagement, Avraham’s burial of Sarah therein posed no problem. But why would he specifically seek a “city plot,” in the ways of the “city folk,” instead of burying Sarah in a place and fashion befitting a nomad?

Avraham was perhaps teaching his children and future descendants an important lesson regarding life and death. Life must be lived “as a nomad” – constantly deflecting the focus from oneself to that of a larger mission, stripped of all ego. Death, in turn, represents the “next step” on that mission, through the everlasting legacy imparted to future generations. Burying Sarah on a random countryside ran the risk of confusing his descendants’ understanding of death. It could cause death to be seen as a loss of all identity, an entrance into a looming abyss of anonymity and inexistence. Burial in the city, by contrast, drew attention to the acceptance of death, and symbolized man’s permanent life in this world.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] See Vayikra 25:23, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers residents with Me,” and Nahum M. Sarna’s Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 166-7.

[2] R. Elhanan Samet, Iyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavua II, vol. I (Tel Aviv, IS 2009 ), pg. 90.

[3] See last week’s devar Torah, “Cities and Human Progress.”

[4] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, 2003), pg. 658-9.

[5] Kass, 564-5.

[6] Bava Metzia 87a.

[7] Gabriel Rockhill, “Why We Never Die,” The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2016. 

[8] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish (New York, 1998), pg. 242.