Parshas Chayei Sarah
By Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari
[Death is for Mankind the great unknown and so all religions and cultures
have concerned themselves with it and in its wake with the issue of
preserving the corpse and the memory after its death. The whole culture
of Ancient Egypt for example, centered around the life after death;
witness the great financial and human cost involved in building the
Pyramids, that are after all nothing more than tombs of the Pharaohs.
Priests, witchdoctors, temples, and shamans of all shades and identities
have arisen throughout time to satisfy human fears and spiritual issues
concerning death and burial. Judaism is the only religion that denies a
place to its priests, the Kohanim, in all that relates to death and
mourning. The burial place of Moshe who led us out of Egypt, brought down
Torah from Heaven and led us to the Promised Land was kept hidden from
human knowledge. So, it is interesting to follow Abarbanel's treatment of
Ma'arat Hamachpeilah as a burial site].
The parsha opens with the negotiations made by Avraham for a burial place
for the Matriarch Sarah after describing her death. We can easily
understand Avraham's mourning for her and the concern of Bnei Chet for his
sorrow. After all Chazal taught (Sanhedrin 22),"One whose wife's death
precedes his own, it is as though the Bet Hamikdash were destroyed in his
time". Less obvious is his feeling the essential need for a special place
for her burial and the importance of the Ma'arat Hamachpelah in that need.
Why should Avraham acutely feel that need? Why bother with burial at all;
surely the body could simply be left to rot? And if it is necessary what
difference does it make to the dead or to the living, where that place is?
A philosopher of the nations [probably as was customary he is referring to
one of the ancient Greeks] said that if the dead are aware then their
burial would only cause them much sorrow and if they feel nothing why
Burial is beneficial to Mankind both as far as the body and the nefesh are
concerned. Since the body of a person without the soul is far more useless
that that of an animal which does not possess one anyhow, the human body
decomposes far quicker, the smell is more noxious and therefore the
[environmental] damage to other people, incurred by leaving it lying
around unburied, is far greater. [Halakah cast smell as a major form of
damages; there is no chazakah in its undisturbed use and despite the
sanctity of contracts these may be broken in this respect, since people
can claim that they thought they could stand it but now find that they
cannot (Magen Giborim, Choshen Mishpat, sec 38). In urban planning:" The
abattoirs and graveyards must be moved from the city 50 amot" (Bava Batra,
Chapter 2, mishnah9). The Torah commanded not to leave the body of one
punished by hanging, on the tree [gallows] without burial, so as not to
cause impurity to the land (Devarim, 22:23). [Contrast his prosaic
treatment of this verse in environmental terms, to its treatment by Sefer
Hachinuch and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch].Death indeed, marks the decomposition
and transformation of the body back into the physical components that it
was formed out of, however, it also marks the return of the soul to its
spiritual source. "And the dust shall return unto the earth from where it
was taken and the soul unto the Lord who granted it". Yet the severance
between the two is not immediate as the soul cannot return on high until
the body has become completely reduced to its components. "12 months a
dead mans body continues to exist and the soul rises and descends from
heaven. At the end of that time the body may be negated and the soul
ascends without descending again" (Shabbat 122). So through burial the
body is granted time till it disintegrates into the materials from which
it was formed and the soul is finally released.
Now the entity that is a human being, body and soul, bears the tzelem of G-
d, so it is a place for the Shechinah to reside, has divinely granted
wisdom, is the pinnacle of the whole creation and has a connection with
Him. It is not fitting therefore that after death it should be treated
with dishonor, disrespect and abuse, to be cast aside like redundant
garbage. That is why Hashem did not want that the people should witness
the death of Aharon apart from Moshe and Elazar, while there were no human
witnesses to the death of Moshe. So burial is needed in order to give the
dead that honor and respect due to a person's divine origins.
The honor rendered by proper burial is directly commensurate with the
moral, social and religious status of the person. So we find that Shaul,
who was not the founder of Jewish Kingship, was simply buried together
with his forefathers, since now in death he was their equal. However,
David whose dynasty was to continue forever, was not buried in Bet Lechem,
his hometown, but rather in Zion, Ir David, that was the burial ground of
all the House of David, the King. If Israel will sin and forsake G-d's
commandments then the "Land will vomit you out just as it did, [because of
its sanctity] owing to their sins, the nations that lived there before you
(Vayikra, 20:23-24)". When a body was cast in haste into the grave of
Elisha, because of the approaching enemy, we find that that grave cast it
out; the sanctity of Elisha could not tolerate the body of the simple
person (Melachim Bet, 13:21).
For all these reasons Avraham saw it fitting that there should be a
significant place for Sarah's burial. So he busied himself with buying
ground in Hevron that was, as the text tells us, in Eretz Canaan that is
the Holy Land promised to him and his children as distinct from Eretz
Pilistim. In that place where Adam and Chava were both buried, then her
bones would never be mingled, even by accident with those of the evil
Canaanites or other nations.
[Then Avraham sets about finding a wife for Yitschak. So important is this
that 67 verses are devoted to it, as many as dealt with the Creation, Gan
Eiden and the sin of Adam and Chavah].
Why did Avraham not want the daughters of Canaan, preferring those of his
family? After all both were bad in their ideologies, both being idolaters.
Also Avraham specifically excludes those presently surrounding him, even
though they were good (24:3); "They were Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei, his
allies" (Bereishit Rabbah, Lech Lecha, 42).
The Canaanites were descendants of Ham and an accursed breed (Ber.9:25),
whereas the daughters of Betuel, Lavan and Haran were descendants of Shem
who was pure and beloved of G-d. It was not only because of his spiritual
and intellectual stature that Avraham did not desire to mingle, what is
destined to be Hashem's People, with a spiritually degenerate seed. We
must bear in mind that that People was destined also for the Holy Land, so
that intermarriage with the daughters of Canaan would mean that ultimately
that cursed breed would inherit that Land; that would mean its
desecration. In addition, there is the praiseworthy idea expressed by the
Ran (Rabbi Yonah Mi Gerondi] that explains Avraham's antagonism to the
daughters of Canaan.
"The mitzvoth and the sins determined by the Torah have 2 perspectives,
namely those connected to the body and those connected to the nefesh.
Those of the body are connected to pride, anger, gassut ruach, bloodshed
and robbery since these are related to the bodily needs. Then there are
the spiritual needs like ideas, beliefs and moral judgments. Those of the
body are transmitted in essence automatically from the parents to their
children whereas those of the nefesh, being of the mind and the spirit are
not necessarily passed on from one generation to the next; rather they are
matters of free choice. So while the Canaanites inherited the evil traits
that had characterized their ancestors the descendants of Betuel and Lavan
would not necessarily be idolaters like their parents. Therefore there was
a possibility of educating their daughters to be fit wives for the sons of
As to his allies, Avraham feared that Eliezer, awed by their wealth,
residence in the land and their noble status, would influence Yitschak in
their direction, even though that very status made them unsuitable.
Therefore he made him take an oath not to take their daughters as wives;
preferring the poor daughters of Haran, who would in addition, be
strangers in the Promised Land and as such not be prevented by their
status from being suitable for Yitschak.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.