Parshas Chayei Sarah
Of Life and Legacy
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her (v'livkosah). (Bereishis
My uncle, the elderly GR"A from Vilna said, the reason why the "chof" is
written small in "v'livkosah" (vav-lamed-bais-CHOF-tav-heh), is because
Avraham knew that she had perfected herself as much as she need to, and
therefore, he didn't cry for her soul, just her body (Penimim M'Shulchan
HaGr"a, p. 49)
In the Torah, the letter "chof" in the word "v'livkosah" is written smaller
than the rest of the letters, making it stand out. For this reason, the
rabbis use it to teach various different lessons, one of the main ones
being that Avraham contained his mourning for his beloved wife and did not
cry for her excessively.
Why is this so important in Judaism? Because, as we pronounce at the time
of burial, G-d is 100% just and all of His decisions are fair and timely --
according to His plan for creation. We humans, not knowing the future, are
often caught off guard when a loved is taken from our midst, and, we are
made to feel the loss quite suddenly. Nevertheless, we must rise above our
feelings of pain and of being "robbed" of a relationship that we cherished,
and proclaim to the world that life is not out of control or random, but,
carefully and precisely orchestrated by a fair and loving G-d who knows
what's best for all more than we do.
However, the Vilna Gaon is extracting another very crucial lesson about
life and death from the small "chof" in this week's parshah. It has to do
with tikun neshamos -- rectification of the soul. Because Avraham
understood that his wife Sarah had completed her tikun, he could let go of
his wife while, at the same time, mourn the loss to his life.
We, for the most part, are absorbed with the physical world. With the
exception of a few very righteous individuals, the rest of us -- even those
of us who believe in a soul and the World-to-Come -- have made the physical
world the main event. If this wasn't true, then, materialism and physical
comfort would not be such priorities to us, nor stumbling blocks in our
lives. But they are, and, therefore, the small "chof" comes along to teach
us to reduce their importance in our lives, and realize what is really
going on in everyday life.
What IS going on in everyday life?
It goes something like this. The goal is to complete/perfect your soul --
first your Nefesh, then your Ruach, and, finally, your Neshamah. Of the
five levels of soul that every Jew has, these are three lowest and the ones
that our actions, words, and thoughts can directly impact.
The most effective and expedient way to achieve such rectification is
through observing all the mitzvos that one can and to learn Torah. These
"cleanse" the sparks of which are souls are made, and cause them to ascend
to higher spiritual levels. Sin, on the other hand, does the opposite.
This is the main event in town, in life; everything else is just a side
show. The yetzer hara wants to convince us otherwise, so that we will not
focus on what counts most and instead cause us to get involved in
non-eternal activities. This way we won't rectify our Nefesh, or, our
Ruach, or, our Neshamah -- whatever level it is we are working on.
However, if we don't, and we leave This World with an incomplete soul,
then, we have to come back again, and again, and again For, once we don't
get it right the first time, then, it is next to impossible to get it all
done in one reincarnation the second or third, or fourth time. We'll just
keep coming back until we get it right -- ALL OF IT right.
Unlike Sarah Immeinu, who perfected herself and left the world, as Rashi
says, quite perfect. And, Avraham knew that, and therefore, could not fully
mourn her knowing that she had truly earned her seat next to the Throne of
Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her (v'livkosah). (Bereishis
The burial of Sarah Immeinu was a Biblical event with ramifications for all
generations to come. This is not just because one of the foremost
Foremothers of all history departed This World after achieving her share in
the future development of the Jewish people, but, also because it is the
first official burial of a human being spoken about in the Torah, at least
with respect to the descendants of the Torah nation.
The Talmud discusses many concepts that are applicable to daily life, one
of which is the concept of burial of the deceased. Aside from the technical
and halachic aspects of the burial procedure, the Talmud wants to know
whether or not burial, and all the honor accorded the deceased, is for the
sake of the person who has died, or, for the sake of the family remaining
behind (Sanhedrin 46b).
As a proof to say that burial is to honor those who remain to mourn for the
deceased relative, the Talmud marshals the above quoted verse. Says the
Talmud, the fact that the verse says that "Avraham came" implies that the
entire burial procedure had been delayed until Avraham's arrival, implying
that whatever was to occur was for his honor, and not for Sarah's.
However, concludes the Talmud, this is no proof either way. For, it would
have been Sarah Immeinu's wish and pleasure that her death be a way to
honor her beloved and surviving husband. And thus, waiting for Avraham to
return before proceeding with burial was in fact honor Sarah Immeinu.
In fact, this is a trait, says the Talmud, that applies equally to living
tzaddikim as it does deceased ones. Says the Talmud: It is pleasant to
tzaddikim when others are honored because of them. That's the way tzaddikim
are: they exist to help others to achieve fulfillment, and feel successful
and meaningful when they do exactly that.
On another note, but part of the same discussion, the Talmud wants to
understand whether the purpose of "hiding" the decomposing body in the
ground is to merely avoid a disgraceful situation for the departed person,
or, to affect an atonement process. As Tosfos points out, there is no
question that atonement is also achieved through burial in the ground, and,
as the Talmud points out elsewhere, the decomposition process itself is a
large part of that atonement.
In fact, according to Kabbalah, the whole point of decomposition,
ultimately, is to provide the opportunity to rebuild the body in the period
of resurrection free of the spiritual "filth" inflicted upon the Jewish
people by the Original Snake in the Garden of Eden, which, resulted in the
inclusion of a yetzer hara into mankind. This is something that is next to
impossible to do in a lifetime, and, requires decomposition to full achieve.
In fact, part of the Gehinnom for a person's soul is to watch the body
decompose. If the soul identified with the body to the point that it came
to mistake its (the soul's) existence for being physical, it will assume it
is dying, to its utter horror, right there as it decomposes in the ground.
Depending upon how much that was true in a person's lifetime, that is how
much "horror" it will provide in the grave -- until the person's soul
realizes that it is still "there" even though the body is not.
This, perhaps, is also part of Avraham's reason not to mourn excessively
over the death of his wife, Sarah. For, Avraham knew full well that Sarah's
life had been a spiritual one, and that, as a result, her body would remain
intact for the eventual resurrection of the dead in the future, her soul
free in the meantime to soar in Heaven amongst the angels of G-d.
Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah, before
Mamre (Hevron) in the land of Canaan. (Bereishis 23:19)
Rav Ban'ah used to demarcate burial caves, and, when he approached
Avraham's, he found Eliezer servant of Avraham at the gate. He said to him,
"What is Avraham doing?" He answered him, "His head is in Sarah's arms and
she is looking at his head." (Bava Basra 58a)
Did Rav Ban'ah, who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second
Temple, really see Avraham's trusted servant mentioned in this week's
parshah, as well as in the previous two? How could Eliezer have lived so long?
So, Rashi explains that the Talmud, elsewhere teaches that Eliezer was one
of seven righteous people in the history of mankind who did not die. And
what better place to bump into him than by the burial place of his master
to whom he was loyal to all of his life?
However, what is, perhaps, more interesting that what Rav Ban'ah finds
outside the cave, is what he finds inside the cave. As the Maharshah points
out, Eliezer expected to hear that Avraham was busying praying to G-d to
spare his descendants from the darkness and suffering of exile, not to hear
that Avraham was reclining in the arms of his wife, and, that his wife was
looking affectionately toward the head of her beloved husband.
However, if you think about it, and you consider how exile became possible
in the first place, you will recall that it was because Chava, who was
meant to help Adam HaRishon bring creation to fulfillment, ate from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then gave to her husband, Adam, to
eat. She was created to be an "aizer" -- a "help" for Adam -- but, instead,
ended up working "k'negdo" -- "against him."
In fact, when Chava had to make the all-crucial decision to accept the
snake's explanation for the prohibition, and, eat as a result, or, to
disregard his words and avoid eventual expulsion from the Garden, she
didn't even consider consulting with Adam. She neither "cradled" nor
"looked" at his head for direction, but rather, acted without concern for
his opinion. Obviously he had failed to make the relationship such that she
would feel compelled to, which is why he is the one, ultimately, held
responsible for the sin.
Thus, finding Avraham and Sarah in this way represented a major tikun for
what Adam and Chava had failed to accomplish. Their relationship and the
process by which they made decisions that affected not just their own
lives, but, the lives of all mankind, symbolized the ultimate unity of a
husband and wife: they were "one flesh."
For this reason, they only had one son, but, what a son they had! The
result of their relationship was a Yitzchak, a perfect offering before G-d,
a person so righteous as to be able to build a holy nation from. No doubt
Avraham and Sarah, like all tzaddikim who have left this world, pray
constantly on behalf of their suffering children. However, the fact that
they live on in a position of oneness and mutual respect is indicative of
the ongoing effect of their tikun to the sin of Adam and Chava.
A Song of Ascents. "Much have they distressed me since my youth," let
Israel declare now. "Much have they distressed me since my youth, but they
never conquered me. On my back the plowers plowed, they lengthened their
furrow. G-d is righteous, He cut the ropes of the wicked." (Tehillim 129:1-4)
As part of a research project, I studied Jewish history from the Jewish
year 5000 (1240 C E) until Present Day, some 761 years of time and events.
I have done it before, but, each time I do, I learn things I never knew
before which usually astound me. Not always positive, but astounding.
In fact, this time very not positive at all, for, I never really knew the
full extent that Jews suffered at the turn of the millennium onward, until
a few weeks ago. For, all that seemed to have been lacking from 5000 onward
(and before then as well) to turn the hatred and virulent anti-Semitism of
the Church into a pre-Holocaust holocaust for centuries was German
technical know-how. The will to do so, was obviously there.
Yet, here we are in the Twenty-First century, having survived the pogroms
and the holocausts, with the greatest danger facing the Jewish people today
being inter-marriage and assimilation, until G-d decides otherwise.
Nevertheless, it does not hide the fact that, in spite of the fact that the
Jewish people should be long gone, especially given our inherent ability to
self-destruct, we are still QUITE here.
In fact, a convert to Judaism told me personally that she is Jewish today
because she accidentally "stumbled" onto Jewish history. Now, one would
ask, "Is not Jewish history, which is often painted in hues of black and
red, the best reason in the world NOT to convert?" She would answer, "Just
the contrary! No people could suffer so and remain sufficiently intact to
survive if the hand of G-d wasn't directly involved, as it obviously was."
That is the only reason why Dovid HaMelech could write with confidence what
he has above.
Let them be ashamed and turned back, all who hate Tzion. (5)
That is, all those who hate the nation that lives in Eretz Yisroel
according to the Torah and the laws of G-d, for, that is the concept of
Tzion in Tanach.
Let them be like the grass on the rooftops, which, even before it is
plucked, withers; with which the reaper cannot fill his hand, nor the
binder of sheaves his arm; and, of which passersby have never said, "G-d's
bless to you; we bless you in the Name of G-d." (6-8)
In other words, no one can deny that the nations have grown and "blossomed"
into mighty empires, and, have accomplished much in the secular world. No
one can deny that there are billions of "them" that cover the earth like
the grass of the land or wheat in the field.
However, as we have seen countless times throughout history, when G-d wills
it, a massive and green piece of land can become dry, parched, and barren,
when G-d wills it. We have witnessed first-hand how an instant storm can
take out a whole field of wheat, and leave people hungry for years to come,
at a moment's notice.
So, too, says Dovid HaMelech, can Israel's enemies, so numerous and so
powerful can be reduced to nothing at a moment's notice, when G-d wills it.
Nature rarely reduces greatness to nothingness at a moment's notice, and,
when does so, seems to do so indiscriminately. However, when G-d gives the
word, then, Israel's enemies -- all of them -- can be neutralized forever
in a single, fateful moment, and will be, when history comes to an end and
the goals of creation are finally achieved.
Dovid HaMelech, like all of us, yearned for that moment. However, unlike
Dovid HaMelech, may we merit to witness it.