Chayei Sarah for Tweens: The Cave of Machpelah

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18

The first words of this parashah translate as "the life of Sarah," but it begins with her death. Abraham buys land in which to bury her and then sends his servant to the village of his brother to acquire a wife for his son Isaac. The servant observes Rebekah, niece to Abraham, who offers him and his camels water to drink. Rebekah follows Abraham's slave back home and becomes Isaac's wife. Abraham marries Keturah, who bears him additional children. Abraham dies at 175 years and his sons Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah that he had insisted on purchasing for Sarah's burial plot.

Almost immediately following Sarah's death, Abraham begins to negotiate a place to bury her:

"Abraham then got up and bowed low to the people of the land, the Hittites, pressing them: 'If you [really] are willing to let me bury my dead here, listen to me and entreat Ephron son of Zoar for me and let him sell me the cave of Machpelah.'" (23:7-9)

The text only tells us briefly that Abraham mourned Sarah, but devotes several scenes to the negotiations for the cave of Machpelah. Why is the Torah describing the financial aspects of land deals? Why do the first verses following the death of Sarah seem to be not of grief but of logistics and details?

According to Sforno, Abraham's behavior is consistent with the Talmudic injunction that "one who hastens to bury the deceased is praiseworthy." (Mo-eid Katan, 22a) The burial should be made as soon as possible. His body shall not remain all night … you shall bury him on that day. (Deuteronomy 21:23) Ephron was willing to give Abraham the land to bury Sarah, but Abraham is insistent on purchasing the land in a public transaction for a significant amount of money. Future generations might be less inclined to dispute the ownership of the cave since it was not a gift but a purchase. (B'reishit Rabbah 79:7) Abraham was concerned with more than a speedy burial. As the father of a nation, Abraham is able to look beyond his memories of times past into provisioning for generations to come. This cave was the first "fact on the ground" and the beginning of claiming the land promised to our people. Sarah's death and Abraham's planning begin to create an inheritance for the Jewish people.

Today, many people purchase plots adjacent to one another, sufficient to house the remains of many family members. Abraham also purchased a cave large enough to bury not only his wife, but subsequent generations as well. These verses represent the first physical bond between our people and the Holy Land. (Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit, 207) Just as many generations among us will forever be tied to cemeteries on Long Island, Galveston, or Charleston, so, too, did the Israelites come back to the Cave of Machpelah. Our tradition tells us that, with the exception of Rachel, all of our foremothers and forefathers, even Joseph's brothers were buried there. Later in our parashah, the theme of the Promised Land is further reinforced:

"The Eternal God of heaven-who took me from my father's house, from the land of my birth, who spoke to me and promised me, saying, 'To your descendants will I give this land...'" (24:7)

Abraham understood the practical necessity of burying his loved one in order to mourn her. Today, we, too, purchase plots of land in which to bury our dead, often doing so long before any death has occurred. We plan for the inevitable and facilitate a rapid burial. The laws of mourning today stipulate that we are not officially mourners until the burial has taken place, because it is from that moment that shivah begins. Prior to burial, it is typical to be preoccupied with logistical concerns that help us take small steps forward emotionally, believing that we are making forward progress. It may be to the place of burial that we return, either at prescribed times during the Jewish calendar or at the time of yahrzeit (the anniversary of death) or simply when we want to remember or honor our loved one. We may feel a connection to that place just as there are those who feel connected to the ground purchased by Abraham so many centuries ago. Both as an individual and as a people, this connection can become too strong, and we can forget that our most profound relationship is with the people we love, not the land.

When we contemplate our own passing, we ask ourselves what of significance we are leaving behind. Thoughtful consideration of this question can be a gift to ourselves as well as to future generations who will benefit from our legacy. In some ways we may not have much to leave behind, but in others we can plant seeds that will live on long after we are physically gone. We can reflect on the lessons we have learned and pass those on by telling stories, writing letters or simply by being an example worthy of emulation. Some people would rather have the joy of passing on their material possessions while they are alive. As Abraham understood, the manner in which we prepare for death and honor our dead in fact can sustain the living.

To Talk About

  1. When tragedy strikes, many often become involved in strictly observing the many rituals surrounding death. How does attending to the details of these practices help us in difficult times?
  2. Today, many cemeteries offer "perpetual care" so that we do not need to be burdened with the upkeep of the gravesite of our loved ones. In addition, some families have relocated and live far from where their parents and grandparents are buried. Because we do not need to tend to the grave and because of the challenges of distance, many of us do not visit the graves of our loved ones frequently. What have we gained from perpetual care, and what have we lost?
  3. What is your inheritance, that is, what have previous generations left to you? Are there physical items which remind you of them, stories, ways of being? What might be your legacy?

Further Learning

The location of the cave is agreed, by most, to be in Hebron located in the West Bank. Today, that land is in dispute, with Hebron being claimed by people at odds with one another. What might it mean to our people if this land is given to the Palestinians? What does this debate say about our claim to the land and about Abraham's acts so many years ago?

Reference Materials

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132

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