Parshas Chayei Sara (5770)
Did you know that the Bible story with the "greatest plot" can be found in this week's Torah portion?
That's right! .... The beginning of Parshas Chayei Sarah tells us, in great detail, how our forefather Abraham went about the "grave" task of finding and purchasing a field in which to bury his beloved wife Sarah. After an extensive search, Abraham finally hit upon the perfect place - a field in the ancient city of Hebron - which would later became known as the Me'oras Ha'machpeilah, the Double Cave. It was called the "Double Cave" because in this cave were buried some of the greatest "doubles" known to man (and I'm not referring to tennis players!) - Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. (Oh, and let's not forget the tradition recorded in the Talmud that Esau's head was also buried there, right alongside the body of his brother Jacob .... sure gives new meaning to the word "headstone", doesn't it?!) So I guess we could say that the Me'oras Ha'machpeilah truly is the "greatest plot" in the Biblical narrative!
But seriously, folks .... we really need to understand why the Torah records in such detail and places so much emphasis on Abraham's search and ultimate purchase of an appropriate burial site for his wife, our matriarch Sarah. After all, doesn't Judaism stress the here and now - isn't what we do here on earth, all the good deeds and charitable acts, what really counts? So why all the fuss about Sarah's burial place?
What's even stranger is the name of this week's portion - Chayei Sarah, The Life of Sarah. With such a name, you would think the Torah would start the portion off with an account of Sarah's early childhood and go on from there to relate all the beautiful acts of kindness and hospitality that she performed throughout her entire life. But no!!! The first thing we're told in this Torah portion about the “life of Sarah” is that she died .... and that her husband purchased a burial plot for her! Why the fixation with her death and burial, when we would be better served hearing about her long and productive life?
The commentaries explain that the reason for the Torah's emphasis on Sarah's death and Abraham's subsequent search for an appropriate burial grounds for her, is in order to stress to our nation the belief in the continued existence of the soul after death. The body deserves to be treated respectfully, as it served as the vessel for the soul, and it exemplified the image of G-d in creation. And according to our tradition, there will come a period of Resurrection, when body and soul will reunite to share in the reward they both deserve for their good deeds here on earth.
Which is to say that our lives do not end with death. (In other words .... it ain't over when the fat cantor sings!). In the Jewish view, death is just the end of the first phase of life - the phase in which we try to emulate G-d through our actions and accomplish all the good that we can. Then, after we die, we get to sit back in the “World to Come" and enjoy the rewards and the nachas of that which we have accomplished during our lifetimes. (Much the same way we do creative work six days a week, and then comes Shabbos - a day on which we cease to create and build, and instead just sit back and enjoy the fruits of all that we have been able to accomplish throughout the week. Indeed, this is why Shabbos is referred to as Mei'ein Olam Ha'bah - a taste of the World to Come.)
This idea of the “afterlife” (or maybe we should call it Life, the Sequel) might be a difficult concept for our minds to grasp and to accept, but it is as Jewish as the Borscht Belt and bagels and lox. And it also helps to explain all the fuss that Abraham seems to make over the burial of his departed wife, in his search for the perfect burial plot. If his pet poodle would have died, he wouldn't have gone to such great lengths - because he knew that there is no "poodle heaven", and that this is the end of the line for little Fido. But the "life of Sarah" was just entering a new phase - a phase in which she could look with great pride upon the legacy that she left behind - the founding of the Jewish Nation. So Abraham treated Sarah's body with the utmost respect and took painstaking efforts to bury her with a proper Jewish burial, because her body "worked together" with her soul to accomplish so much good all the days of her life here on earth.
Even the Hebrew word for life, chaim, reflects this idea of the afterlife. You see, the word chaim is always stated in plural form – not life, but lives. (Just to illustrate the point: Yad, the Hebrew word for hand, when stated in plural form becomes yadayim, or hands. So that chaim, which has the same two-letter suffix as yadayim, is really in plural form, and is properly translated lives.) And the powerful message for life in this word chaim is that all of us are meant to live not one, but two lives simultaneously – a physical, material life and a spiritual, soul-driven life – with the spiritual life being the more important of the two.
And even when our physical life ends and is no longer, our spiritual life continues and our soul lives on in a different dimension, just as our Matriarch Sarah’s did, basking in the accomplishments and good deeds that it performed during its brief sojourn here in the physical world.
So here’s to living both of our lives to the fullest …. L’chaim!