Parshas Chaya Sara (5769)
You may not know this, but the story recorded in the beginning of this week's Torah portion serves as the scriptural source for one of the most basic laws of Jewish weddings.
At the very beginning of Tractate Kiddushin in the Babylonian Talmud, the Mishnah teaches us that money or any object of monetary value can be used to perform the act of kiddushin (betrothal). This is the legal basis for the traditional marriage ceremony, in which the chasan (bridegroom) gives a wedding ring to the kallah (bride). Since the ring has monetary value, it is valid for the act of kiddushin. The Talmud then explains that this law is derived (through a well-known Talmudic method of interpretation called gezeirah shavah) from the Torah's account of how Abraham bought the Meoras HaMachpeilah, the Double Cave, in Hebron as a burial site for his wife Sarah and paid for it with money [see Genesis 23:3-20].
I don't know about you, but to me it seems quite strange that the Torah would use the purchase of a burial plot as a source for the laws of Jewish marriage. It's a little morbid, isn't it? Maybe had this "comparison" between marriage and death come from the ancient Greeks, whose attitudes towards marriage and women in general were quite negative, we would have understood. Was it not the Greek poet Palladas who once wrote: "Marriage brings a man only two happy days. The day he takes his bride to bed and the day he lays her in her grave". The Torah, however, certainly looks upon marriage as a most hallowed institution with women playing a central and critical role. So it is a bit "incongruous" to see this parallel being made by the Torah.
In truth, marriage and death in the Jewish tradition do share similar features. The day of entry into both is a quasi Yom Kippur (both marriage and death atone on some level for previous sins) on which one dresses in white; they are both followed by seven-day periods - the Sheva Berachos for a bride and groom and the Shivah for one mourning a deceased relative. And they parallel each other on a deeper level as well: In marriage, one enters into a more advanced stage of life, which is a relationship with another. In death, too, one enters a more advanced stage of life in which one consummates a relationship with another - G-d.
But after all is said and done, it's still hard to understand why the Torah would use death and burial plots of all things to teach the laws of marriage and weddings. Especially when you consider how some might use these parallels for all sorts of tasteless jokes that compare marriage to death ...
~ Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?" "Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life." The child thought about this for a moment, then said, "So why is the groom wearing black?"
~ In marriage, the bridge gets a shower. But for the groom, it's curtains!
~ What's the difference between marriage and death? Dead people are free.
All kidding aside, there must have been some really important lesson that G-d intended for us to learn from the Torah's comparing marriage to death the way it does, as strange as it might seem.
I would like to offer two lessons about marriage that I take from all this:
The first lesson is about permanence - the idea that when a couple marches down the aisle and stands under that chuppah canopy together, they need to know that their marriage bond is forever. And that no matter what happens - unless, of course, things turn really bad, in which case divorce is justified - they are committed to making the marriage work and are in it for the long haul. Going into the marriage with just this attitude itself is a surefire way of guaranteeing its success and longevity.
In order to teach this vital lesson about marriage in the most powerful way possible, the Torah chose as a source for the laws of the wedding ceremony the most permanent acquisition one can ever buy - a burial plot. Real estate is bought and sold, even diamonds can be lost or stolen ... but graves are forever and so is marriage.
This commitment to stay together in marriage forever is sorely lacking in our times. Today we live in the "Bic pen" generation when if pens break (or relationships fail), we don't bother fixing them - we just throw them out and replace them with a newer model. Witness the escalating divorce rates in recent years - and the divorce rates for second marriages are even higher. We need to take a lesson from Abraham's purchase of a permanent burial plot for his wife Sarah and apply it to our own marriages - and commit to staying together at all costs until death do us part.
The second lesson we can learn from the Torah's seemingly strange comparison of burial plots and marriage is about appreciation.- to realize the wonderful gift of having a husband or a wife with which to spend our lives, and to appreciate it for all its worth. Your wife (or husband) is your key to spiritual growth and to building a beautiful home and family together with you - and she/he is someone to be cherished more than anything else that you have in the world.
But not everyone appreciates their spouses, or being married in general. Some (tragically) think that they were "ripped off" and that marriage and the burdens and responsibilities that come with it are too high a price to pay for whatever good there is to be gained from spending your entire life with this one person. I think this one joke tells it all: A little boy asked his father, "Daddy, how much does it cost to get married?" And the father replied, "I don't know, son, I'm still paying for it."
These two very different attitudes towards marriage (and towards other special things in our lives that are often under-appreciated) are reflected in the Bible's account of Abraham's purchase of the Meoras Hamachpeilah from Ephron the Hittite in which to bury Sarah. As the Torah relates, Abraham spent 400 shekels of silver (which some estimate to be in the millions of dollars in today's currency!!) for that burial plot. One can only imagine the conversation that Ephron had that night after returning home to his family with all that money in his hands: "Honey, you are not going to believe what happened today! Some Jewish guy named Abraham paid me 400 Shekels - yes, you heard me correctly, 400 Shekels!! - for that dumb piece of land we own. Can you believe it?! Boy did I rip him off!!"
Of course to Abraham, who knew full well the tremendous spiritual importance of the Meoras Hamachpeilah in Hebron(according to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were buried there and it is considered to be one of the holiest burial places in the entire world), this was the absolute Deal of the Century!! Only 400 shekels for such an amazing piece of real estate!!
Two people, two very different attitudes - and it was all a function of how much each appreciated the value of what was purchased.
Maybe this was the lesson the Torah wanted us to take home about the best "purchase" we will ever make - i.e. standing under the chuppah and committing to spend the rest of our lives with our beloved soulmate. For those who don't appreciate the spiritual value of marriage, it can easily be perceived as a "rip off", definitely not worth the "price" we have to pay to keep it going. To them, marriage is a three-ring circus - first the engagement ring, then the wedding ring - and then ... suffering.
But for those who follow Abraham's lead, and who understand that a good wife or husband is worth his/her weight in gold - or, as Jewish husbands traditionally sing to their wives every Friday night before the Shabbos meal, "Aishes chayil mi yimtza ... A woman of valor who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value" - the spouse we choose to spend our married lives with is truly the "Deal of our Lifetimes", and no price is too high to pay for this person, together with whom we can grow spiritually and create a beautiful home that will stand in our merit for all eternity.