Parshas Chayei Sarah: Burial And Misdirection

A magician will successfully trick someone via one of two methods. The magician might actually move his or her hands faster than the eye can see, or, more commonly, the magician will employ some form of misdirection. Indeed, misdirection, and a proper understanding of how it is used, is key to properly being able to read the Torah.

When there is a slam-dunk case on one of those CSI shows or the like, and the accused seemingly has no way out of being convicted, the defense will usually go one of three ways:

  1. Plead that the guy is insane.
  2. Find some procedural issues with something that the policemen did (not a full reading of rights, etc.)
  3. Say that the case was so strong against this particular accused individual from the start that no one else was ever even considered for a moment.

We do that third thing all the time when reading the Chumash. We will read certain things straight in the posuk, and be misdirected from other things that are also going on at the same time. We never even consider another option.

Rivkah liked Yaacov and Yitzchak liked Eisav. We know this. But the fact that there is such a big distinction drawn between the two brothers blinds people to the other oddities in the posukim. For one, when the text speaks about Yitzchak’s love the word that is used is “ahav” which is oddly in the present tense. Furthermore, it seems like Yitzchak’s love for Yaacov was conditional, while Rivkah’s love for Yaacov seemed to be unconditional.

Ok. That's the introduction. Keep that all in mind as we proceed.

Sarah lived until she was 127 years old. She dies in Kiryat Arbeh in Chevron. Avraham talks to the B’nei Cheit asking for a place to bury Sarah somewhere. They tell him to please take the best piece of land, and that no one will stop him (remember, Avraham was (likely) tremendously popular, and had thousands of students that followed him everywhere — he was a tremendously successful religious figure). If you are willing, they say, please meet with Efron. Avraham says he'd like the cave of Ma'arat HaMachpeilah, and that he would pay for it, and “be amongst them”. Efron says bury your dead, and Avraham replies asking him to take money before the burial. They agree on the exorbitant fee (this is clear, actually, from the Code of Hammurabi) of 400 shekel (or some such currency), he buys the lands, and that's that.

It is, without question, a very lengthy description of something that doesn't need to be so detailed. There are three famous suggestions for why this is so:

  • It is the first acquisition of land in Israel for the Jewish people, so to spend almost 20 posukim on it might actually be very much worthwhile.
  • Ramban says that the interaction with B’nei Cheit is important because Avraham is treated mostly nicely, and so we see his status as an "Av BaGoyim" (father amongst even the gentiles) as we mentioned above.
  • The word “maisi” (my dead) appears a lot in these posukim. It is the climax of Avraham's chesed. Mais Mitzvah is the greatest chesed a person can do because, as we know, he gets nothing in return. And a relative of the person can do it best — as we know, even a Cohen can become Tamei Meis to bury his own close relative due to the fact that “he can do it better than anyone else”. This is also, perhaps, why so many posukim were needed.

We can be blinded by all of this.

Quite simply, the reason why there are so many posukim spent here is, most likely, because it is the first burial in the Torah.

By Adam, the Torah just says that he dies and it moves on to Sheis. No burial. By Noach too, the Torah just says that he dies. It tells a lifelong story, but there is interestingly no recorded burial. They both are, seemingly, left unburied. By Yitzchak (after Avraham, of course) the Torah says that he was buried. Same by Yosef, Yaacov, and Moshe (who's grave, famously, we don't know the location of as he was buried by God Himself — a burial cloaked in mystery, witnessed by no one).

Avraham, of course, was probably not the first person in history to bury his dead. There is a long standing tradition say that Adam and Chava are even possibly buried in Ma'arat HaMachpeilah, after all. But Avraham's burial of Sarah is the first burial mentioned in the Torah. That's why there were so many posukim spent on it. Burial is important, and the first one ever mentioned, done in the nicest way possible, very much deserves to be spoken about in great detail.

But what is the big deal with burial in Judaism in general?

There is a battle in cemeteries today. Years ago, no Jew ever decided to be cremated. Now, larger and larger amounts of Jews are requesting just that. There is a massive growth in the popularity of cremation. And there is, of course, a clear benefit to it. Eventually, the world will run out of cemetery space. It might be in hundreds of years, but it will happen at some point. So what's the big deal with Judaism and burial? How do we respond to the issue of cremation?

Well, there are, as always, a few answers.

One is Techias HaMeisim. By cremating, one could suggest, you are undermining the belief in the revival of the dead. But hey, most corpses aren't in great shape either. If God can bring a pile of bones back to life, why can He not do the same with ashes? By definition, He, of course, could. Then again, maybe God is bound by actual bones. Maybe he won't revive people if there is no real remnant of the person. Not that he can't, but that he won't (this is based on various Gemaras that mention bones; Midrashim to that effect, etc.). Also, with burial, we don't do the decomposition — God/nature does. By cremation, we ourselves are destroying the body. Point is, there is an argument here, even if it’s not so compelling.

Another possibility is that it's like tattoos. We are not allowed to damage our body. It is not really ours. Our body, at the end of the day, belongs to God. As such, it is not ours to destroy even upon death, and cremation, of course, would be a pretty sever violation of this principle.

Finally, we can say that we bury because we bury. And that's not as circular as it sounds. Cremation was a very pagan thing, and to separate ourselves from them, we instituted the halacha of actual burial.

But the importance of burial runs deeper than all of that. It's something more fundamental. We, as Jews, believe in a deep connection between life and death. The Gemara says that we should go to a cemetery before Rosh HaShanah — they are inspiring places. They remind us of our mortality, something that, while we shouldn’t constantly be thinking about, should forever be somewhat on our mind.

Cremation, though, loses this connection and inspiration. How many generations is it proper etiquette to keep ashes for? How long do they stay on that mantel? I don't know. And sure, you can say that many people even bury the ashes of cremation, but at that point, why not just bury the body? With a whole memorial stone and whatnot, ashes can't take up that much less space than burying an entire body.

This connection between life and death, and death and the earth, all stems back to Adam and how he was fashioned from said earth — from the ground. Adam was made of earth and "Nishmas Hashem". God deliberately makes Man from earth. We should, quite simply, return man from whence he came.

Everything on Earth is a revelation of metaphysical realities because things could have been done in a different way. The very fact that things happen the way that they do reveals something about God and the way that He works. Why does a body decompose at all? Well, it's the circle of life. It is the reversal of the creation process. With cremation, one loses all of this.

In the beginning of the burial saga in the parsha it seems as if Avraham has no spirit. He has no connection to God in the way that he talks. He never mentioned Him. Not even once. And yet, he does a religious act of sorts when he bows to the "Am HaAretz" (the Nation of the Land). Who are these people, though? Mere posukim before they were called “Bnei Cheit”!? Why, numerous times, does Avraham bow to these people?

Avraham, you see, recognizes the value of land, of Aretz. Avraham bows to the ground, and it is then Bnei Cheit who turn it around and refer back to Avraham as "Adonai" (my master), referencing God. There is also a spirit, there is also Divinity. But Avraham focuses on the ground. The Aretz is the fertile ground for where spirituality grows in the world — and as such, Avraham calls them “Am HaAretz”.

The ground allows the spirit to grow, but this is a difficult test. God is not found in the heavens. And the ultimate reunion of Man and God is by burial in the ground — in the very place that God can be found in, however difficult it may be. It is a reunion with the uplifting of the physical to the holy, the ultimate symbolism for God in all of life.

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