Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)
The Double Image
One would have thought that only a poor comedian desperate for a good line would attempt to establish a parallel between weddings and funerals. Yet according to our sages, it was the Psalmist rather than the comedian who first highlighted this connection. There is nothing satirical about it.
"For this let every devout one pray to You at a time when 'it' happens." (Psalms 32:6)
Rabbi Chanina said that 'it' refers to a woman; that is to say, even the devout should pray to God to be sure to merit a good wife. Rabbi Yochanan said that 'it' refers to burial; the devout should pray to God to merit a proper burial. (Talmud, Berochot 8a)
Marriages and burials have something in common. They both require a greater degree of Divine assistance than the other occasions that are parts of every normal life. Praying for their successful accomplishment requires a greater investment of effort and devotion than praying for other things.
This same linkage between marriages and burials is strikingly on display in this week's Torah portion whose major topics are the burial of Sarah in the Cave of Machpela, and the marriage of Isaac to Rebecca.
Let us attempt to reach some understanding of this seemingly odd match-up.
THE MACHPELA CAVE
The Cave of Machpela, the burial site of the matriarchs and patriarchs, is referred to ten times through the Book of Genesis, and the story of its purchase is described three times at length. What can be so significant about a particular cemetery that justifies the allocation of so much precious Torah space to the story of its acquisition?
The first clue: the Machpela cave has always been regarded as a place of pilgrimage by the Jewish people. Tradition has it that prayers offered at this site are especially effective. Our Sages tell us that the site was already recognized as holy in the times of Joshua (Talmud, Sotah, 34b). Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to survey the Promised Land, and one of the two who survived the experience, went there to pray for the inner strength to resist the lure of the conspiracy of the spies. It is his pilgrimage to the Machpela cave that saved him.
Nachmanides, one of the great Biblical commentators of the Middle Ages, writes to his son that he traveled all the way from Spain to be able to pray at the Machpela cave and to arrange a burial site for himself in the vicinity [see Letter #7, Chavel]. In those days the trip took an entire year and Nachmanindes was not a young man when he undertook it. In general, the graves of tzaddikim, "the righteous ones," are considered favored prayer sites. Why? Surely, when the soul leaves, the body simply disintegrates and returns to the soil. How can there be any remnant of the personality that once inhabited it associated with such a lifeless, formless lump of clay?
Another medieval commentator, the Ran, explains that the effectiveness of prayer at the burial sites of tzaddikim can be understood in terms of the special distinction Jewish tradition assigns to spiritual connections. A person who succeeds in establishing a new connection to God creates an eternal bond that will never disintegrate. After all God is above space-time. To Him, past, present and future have no existential meaning. It is we who experience time as a reality. We are born young, gradually age and finally die. None of these human experiences apply to the Divinity. The flow of time is part of our world, not God's [see Droshot Haran #8].
According to our perception of reality, Abraham and Sarah may have died four thousand years ago; but as far as God is concerned, they are no more dead or in the past than they ever were. They are still walking around, fully active and very much alive in their own reality envelope. Their connection to God is still vibrant and alive and remains very much a function of the present from His point of view.
It is spiritual distance that separates us from God, not time, and spiritual distance has nothing to do with being alive or dead; the living person who cuts himself off from God is no closer to Him alive than dead. Rashi (Genesis 11:32) explains in the name of the Midrash that the wicked are already considered dead in their lifetimes; whereas the righteous are considered alive even after they die. After the passage of four thousand years we still begin all our prayers by attaching ourselves to God through the pathways created by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
THE DOUBLE FEATURE
In Hebrew, the word Machpela literally means "double." We all lead double lives. We live in the physical world - coping with its practical survival demands, making a living, raising children, planning for retirement. But the Torah teaches us that our activities have a dual aspect: the way we carry out the common activities of life has consequences in the spiritual world, and impacts on our relationship with God.
But wouldn't you expect that people who actually believed that all their mundane activities have a spiritual aspect as real and at least as important as their physical side to be focused on the spiritual consequences of their actions at least as much as they are concerned with their physical ramifications? Doesn't the very fact that this is so rarely the case in practice indicate that we do not truly believe this?
Not at all. The problem: most of us find it extremely difficult to focus on two things simultaneously. This human limitation effectively forces us to ignore the spiritual consequences of our ordinary daily activities. We get too involved in coping with the everyday aspect of our problems to remain simultaneously conscious of what our activities are accomplishing in the spiritual world. We can only manage one life at a time. Although our lives are "double," we live them uni-dimensionally.
The people buried in the Cave of the Machpela were truly "double" people. Unlike us, they weren't very interested in the physical aspects of their lives. Their focus was always on the things their earthly deeds accomplished in the spiritual world; they never engaged in any mundane physical activity for its own sake; their focus was always on spiritual consequences.
Knowing our limitations, God enabled us to compensate for our lack of ability to devote the proper attention to spiritual consequences by giving us the Torah. The Torah teaches us how to manage the activities of our lives so that our mundane activities produce the desired spiritual results without our having to focus on the spiritual aspect of our activities at all. All we have to do is focus on the fulfillment of the commandments as we do on any earthly activity.
The Patriarchs had no such guide available to them. They had to figure out the spiritual consequences of their activities all by themselves. It was in the merit of their accomplishments in this area that God awarded us, their children, the Torah, and provided us with the means of following in their footsteps even though we are lacking in their ability to focus simultaneously on the dual aspects of being.
THE FIRST "DOUBLE" PERSON
The first person after Adam and Eve to be buried in the Cave of the Machpela was the Matriarch Sarah. She was clearly a "double" person par excellence, yet an incident that appears to encapsulate the diametric opposite of this double approach to life is directly attributed to her.
As the Torah relates the story, Sarah, a childless woman, persuades her husband to take a second wife, Hagar, so that raising the child of this union might help her, Sarah to conceive. How this approach to fertility problems works is beyond the scope of our discussion, but work it does, and sure enough, thirteen years after Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, Sarah herself becomes pregnant and bears a son, Isaac.
Soon after her own son, Isaac is born, Sarah tells Abraham to banish both Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham is reluctant, but God Himself appears and backs Sarah's decision, and they are duly sent away, without escort and with the most meager provisions. Hagar soon gets lost in the desert and God has to send an angel to provide her with water and save Ishmael's life. On the face of it, this is a record of horrendous cruelty and ingratitude.
As we shall see, if we manage to unravel the mystery of Sarah's motivations and comprehend her behavior we shall also find the key to the connection between weddings and funerals.
LIFE AND LAUGHTER
Reflection shows that far it must be Sarah's 'double-ness' that provides the background for the comprehension of the Ishmael story. Being a 'double' person means living with God constantly. Focusing on the spiritual consequences of everyday activities means keeping the image of God constantly before your eyes as laid out in the Shulchan Aruch [Orach Chaim, 1,1]. Passing the tradition of living with God down the chain of generations requires even more. God has to become a virtual member of your household. In her wisdom, Sarah perceived that Ishmael could not fit into this sort of environment.
"Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, mocking." (Genesis 21:9)
The Tosefta (Sotah 6,6) explains that the verb to mock, "Mezachek," employed in this verse also refers to idol worship, licensciousness, and murder. Strangely enough, Isaac's name in Hebrew, Yitzchak, derives from the exact same verb expressed in the future tense. The difference between Isaac and Ishmael is in the timing of their laughter. The Talmud explains (Brochot 31a) the futuristic connotation of Isaac's name; it is forbidden to release oneself totally to laughter in this world; total release to joy is reserved for the next world; hence the name of Isaac, Yitzchak, laughter in the future tense. Ishmael's laughter, Mezachek is expressed in the present tense.
Idol worship, licensciousness and murder are only possible in the absence of the awareness that I will need to give an accounting for everything I do in this world one day. You can only enjoy these activities fully by living entirely in the moment of the present. A "double" person is totally incapable of engaging in any of them. When Sarah observed that Ishmael needed to release unrestrained laughter and joy in this world, she knew immediately that he could not prosper in her household. Such unrestrained laughter demonstrated that he was clearly uni-dimensional.
"DOUBLE NESS" AND THE WOMB
But why was Ishmael uni-dimensional? Wasn't he a child of Abraham as much as Issac was? As they had the same father, the key to the difference between them must lie in their mothers. Unlike Sarah, Hagar was a one-dimensional person; Ishmael who was formed in her womb was born lacking a "double" aspect. Ishmael could not tolerate the atmosphere of constant focus on spirituality that prevailed in Abraham's house.
He defended himself against its influence by mocking it; our common human reaction to anything we perceive as exaggerated sanctity. We tend to mock people who take themselves too seriously, and our standard of what to consider "too seriously" tends to be extremely subjective. Sarah recognized that the son of Hagar and her son were not the same sorts of human beings, and they did not belong in the same household.
In Sarah's "double" house, the uni-dimensional Ishmael could be nothing more than a spoiler, bringing down its spiritual level and making himself miserable in the process. A child of Abraham, Ishmael has his own greatness, but it could not emerge in Sarah's double household.
Severing the connection was beneficial for all concerned. Since the severance was affected with pureness of heart, solely to preserve the integrity of the spiritual connection of Abraham's household with God, its consequences could only benefit all concerned, including Ishmael. Had there been the slightest trace of jealousy or any other negative emotion motivating Sarah's behavior, it would have been unthinkable for God to support her decision to banish Ishmael.
BEING BORN "DOUBLE"
The spiritual quality inherent in Abraham's children is the subject of an open discussion that takes place between God and Abraham.
"The word of God came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.' And Abram said, 'My Lord God, what can you give me seeing that I go childless?' And He took him outside, and said, 'Gaze now toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!' and He said to him, 'So shall your offspring be!'" (Genesis 15:1)
Our Sages interpret the phrase '"He took him outside" to mean that God removed Abraham from the natural order of things that is symbolized by the influence of the stars. Under the natural order of the universe Abraham could not reproduce. (Talmud, Yevomos, 64a)
Abraham could only bear children by being given access to a new power of reproduction injected into the universe through a special spiritual pipeline established specifically for the purpose. Not only Isaac was born through this fresh connection, but Isaac's children as well. For just as Abraham could not reproduce naturally, neither could Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob had the same problem with his main wife Rachel. (Genesis 25:21, 29:31, Talmud, Ibid.)
The Talmud expresses this new power of reproduction in terms of a partnership; There are three partners in the formation of a person; the Holy One, his father and mother. (Niddah 31a)
The Ishmael story teaches us just how significant a role the Jewish mother is assigned in this new partnership. Studying the story explains the reason that Torah law teaches that Jewish identity is acquired through the mother. The fusion between the soul and the body takes place in the womb. It is there that the capacity to be "double" must make its first appearance. Ishmael's mother, Hagar, was not a "double" person herself, and no "double" connections could form in the environment of her womb.
The central thesis of this essay was stated plainly by Abraham himself before the birth of Isaac. When God informs Abraham that he will have a child by Sarah, he accepts the news with a singular lack of enthusiasm:
"O that Ishmael might live before You." (Genesis, 17,18)
It is quite apparent that Abraham understood that the birth of Isaac somehow represents a rejection of Ishmael. His reaction was to offer a prayer to ask God to repair the defect that served as the grounds for the rejection of Ishmael. Abraham expressed all this in the words "live before you."
LIVING BEFORE GOD
We have explained that this concept of "living before God" is the true essence of being "double." The "double" person conducts his or her life in God's presence. He or she lives before God even as he goes about his everyday business. Abraham and Sarah weren't born "doubles." The patriarchs dedicated their lives to internalizing "living before God" and making it a part of their characters. They succeeded so well, that the capacity for "double-ness" was inborn in their children.
Not that "living before God" ever comes easy. Even a person born with a natural capacity for "double-ness" needs to work hard to actualize the potential. Only a life spent dedicated to Torah observance can bring out the spiritual qualities of "double-ness". Unfortunately, most of us allow our potential to live before God unexploited and dormant, preferring to live uni-dimensional lives; we never become the "double" people we have inherited the potential to become. We banish ourselves from Abraham's house. No one wants to kick us out.
It is not surprising that the souls of those who do actualize their "double" potential never entirely leave this world. Such people spend their lives living before God. The connections they form between their mundane activities and their consequences in the spiritual dimensions of existence elevate their physical selves to the level of spirituality. Spiritual connections with God, Who is beyond space-time are also beyond space-time; they do not dissolve upon the death of the people who forged them. The graves of the tzaddikim are sites that are especially suited to prayer - they are the sites where the connections between the spiritual and physical realms of reality are interred in the earth.
The people who first established and perfected this capacity to conduct "double" lives were interned in the Cave of the Machpela, the "Double Cave." No wonder that it has been a place for prayer and pilgrimages ever since.
THE MARRIAGE-BURIAL CONNECTION
The connection between marriage and burial is finally beginning to crystallize; we can begin to glimpse why marriage and burial may both require special devotion. When a man marries he interns the spiritual connection he has with God in his wife. It depends entirely on her whether he will succeed in passing this connection down to his children. When something is totally beyond my power, the only one who can help is God. I must turn to Him in prayer.
The spiritual connection a person establishes with God also passes out of his control upon his death. It survives his death, but any further use that is made of it is in the hands of others, and only God can help to insure that it remains a positive force in the unfolding of the God-man relationship that is Jewish history. Once again only prayer can help.
But there is a comfort in this lack of control. When the Palmist enjoins us to pray for something in God's name, he also conveys the message that our prayers will receive a favorable reception. In our own time, we are bearing witness to the power of the prayers of the earlier generations of Jews who prayed to God to protect the spiritual connection to Him they are passing down to their children. We see these prayers being answered in great numbers.