parshat Chayei Sarah
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on October 28th 2021 as we explore the Bible’s euphemism for death: “and he was gathered unto his people” as an opportunity to question our assumptions regarding the biblical view of the afterlife … with much appreciation to Jon D. Levenson. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/357282
Geoffrey Stern 00:04
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and that might leak we light a spark or shed some light on it to his text or tradition. We also host a clubhouse every Thursday evening at 8pm. Eastern, which we record and post as the Madlik Disruptive Torah podcast. If you like what you hear, give us a star or two and write a review. Today along with Rabbi Adam Minch, we explore the Bible’s euphemism for death, and he was gathered unto his people. We use it as an opportunity to question our assumptions regarding the biblical view of the afterlife. So gather together and join us for life is with people, and so is death. Well, welcome, everybody. I am broadcasting live from Israel. It’s three in the morning. And I’m glad that you joined us at 8pm on a Thursday night, Eastern Time our new time. So we have a wonderful parsha; It’s called Chayei Sarah. And it’s probably the only portion that has that famous Haim in it life. But the truth is, like many good titles, it actually is about the opposite of life. It’s about the death of Sarah and maybe we can somehow work into the discussion how the rabbi’s perspective on life and death would lead them to name a portion that is so much about losing our matriarchs and patriarchs and call it Life. But in any case, we are going to explore two parts of the portion the first is it begins with Sarah dying and Abraham purchasing a cave kever Hamechpelat to bury his wife and for his future himself and for his family. And the other part is, for the first time, the Bible uses a distinct or at least distinctive to us euphemism for death. Up until now, when Adam dies, you can see it in Genesis 5: 5 it says well, the days that Adam lived came to 930 years, then he died. And it goes on and on Noah, Genesis 9 all the days Noah came to 950 and then he died. So up until this point, when somebody dies, literally all it says is an he died. And we shall see that. In this week’s parsha it uses a euphemism that maybe is introducing us for the first time at least gives us an excuse to discuss the ancient Israelite conception of death. But let’s begin from the beginning of the portion. And it says as follows In Genesis 23. “So Sarah died and Kiryat Arba, which is now Hebron [the Bible tells us] in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewall her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead and spoke to the Hittite saying, I am a resident alien amongst you sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial.” And the Hittites respond, “Bury Your Dead in the choicest of our burial places, none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” So the first thing that I’d like to say is, it seems that number 1, there was nothing distinct. There was nothing extraordinary about what Abraham was doing. If anything, you get this sense of helped me out here, so I can remove the dead for burial, almost as though the Hittites or the Canaanites or that he was talking to understood maybe this this Torah concept of having to bury one’s dead quickly having to remove it from the Earth, maybe Tumah, whatever. But it seems to me that there is nothing up until this moment that is distinctive, either about the burial reihts that we Jews have, or in how we deal with them. What’s your perception Rabbi?
Adam Mintz 04:39
I think that’s right. The idea here in this story is not so much about the burial rights. It’s the fact that Abraham wants to purchase this burial plot. He doesn’t want to get it as a gift. He wants to purchase it. And I think that’s really weird. The crux of the whole story kind of turns around? Why does he need to purchase it? Why isn’t he satisfied just getting it as a gift.
Geoffrey Stern 05:11
So I mean, I can speak from personal experience, it meant a lot to my dad to have a family plot. And the main reason he wanted it is so that he could keep the family together so that he would be assured that there were spaces for the future generations. I mean, as I read this, my first inclination is to say that there is nothing novel here, except the fact that Abraham is a foreigner, and doesn’t have a tract of land already. Do you think that’s possible?
Adam Mintz 05:45
I mean, I think that seems to be not only possible, but probable, that, you know, where did he have a tract of land from, he came, he was a foreigner, he travelled from place to place to place, he was not only a, you know, a foreigner, but he was a wanderer. And I think a lot of the commentators make that point, he wanders, he’s always in a different place. There’s a famine, he goes one place there’s another famine, he goes another place, he’s always traveling, so he never actually settled down. It’s kind of ironic, that the first time he needs to settle down is to buy a cemetery plot. That, to me is ironic.
Geoffrey Stern 06:25
But again, it doesn’t seem strange, or that his burial practices or anything about what he’s doing is differentiating or unique. Before we go any further, I’d like to share with you as as a young man, when I was exploring, for the first time, my Judaism as a young adult, one of the things that struck me when I read books, like basic Judaism, by Milton Steinberg, and just looked around was this kind of preconception that there isn’t much talk about the afterlife, in Judaism and in the Bible, or I should say, in the Bible. You know, there was a theologian named Johannes Pettersen back in the 1800s. And he was in the field of Biblical Studies, he was renowned. And they asked him, you know, there’s not much that biblical scholars agree upon, he says, but in terms of the life after death, the consensus to be brief, is that there was none, that everyone who dies goes to Shaol into the pit. And that was 80 years ago. Is it when you grew up? Or even as you stand here today, Rabbi, and you read the, the Old Testament, and you kind of just read it the way it is, are you struck by how little talk there is? That we have to almost squeeze a word and manipulate a context to get any sort of rendering of what an Abraham believed about the world to come about? What she was involved with here?
Adam Mintz 08:17
Tremendously problematic, tremendously. Now, you know, there’s, there’s a whole history here, because my Maimonides, The Rambam was criticized, as be as someone who rejected the idea of of Techiyat Hameitim of life after death. And he actually wrote an entire book called The statement on Techiyat Hameitim, to prove that he believed in life after death, but you wonder about it. And you wonder he wrote the book, but did he really believe it? Or did he just write the book?
Geoffrey Stern 09:01
Absolutely, I mean, I think if you go back to the text, for instance, Noah I mentioned before the anticlimactic way that his death is described, he lived 950 years, then he died. If you compare that to the story of Gilgamesh, at the end of his heroic journey, he’s promised immortality. The only thing that Noah is promised is that God will never destroy the world again. And the first covenant is made with a rainbow. It does seem that this isn’t only maybe a question that a modern could come up with. It would seem that anyone who read these texts at the time that they were written, published and disseminated would notice that HaIkar Chasar min Hasefer, the main thing is missing from the book. So much of religion is based on the promise of an afterlife. So much of religion as we know it is to answer the questions that we all question about our mortality. And what struck me as a youth but even till today, and almost I’m proud of it, is that somehow my reading of the Old Testament showed me how this worldly we were, and that we did things to live a good life, and not for some future reward. Again, does that resonate with you at all, as in your journey? With with the Torah?
Adam Mintz 10:40
That’s the only way you can really look at the world is to say that we live a good life so that we can have a good life, you know, the idea that there’s, that reward is going to be givien in the world to come. That’s actually just introduced an answer to the oldest question that we have. And that is why the bad things happen to good people. You know, if bad things happen to good people, then you have to ask the question of: that’s not fair. And one of the rabbi’s say to that the reward is in the world to come. Now, that’s the kind of cheap answer, because no one’s ever been to the world to come and come back again to report.
Geoffrey Stern 11:28
So in in our parsha, somehow, there’s a little bit of a crack in the wall meaning to say that, as I said before, not only do we have for the first time the beginning of provisions for when somebody passes in terms of the first funeral, the first burial and all that, but then instead of just simply saying anticlimactically, and he died or she died. It says when Abraham Genesis 25: 8, and Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe old and contented age. And he was gathered to his people V’esof el amov. And if you look at the classical commentaries, all of a sudden, they pick up on it, and they start talking about the various gradations of death of life after death. They imply that the life of Abraham here we see was not only b’seva and Tova, but he was gathered to his kin. And this is some sort of sign of elevation. Do you think that the rabbi’s on their mark here, or they’re just doing what they have to do because there’s so little said, they have to interject this, this sense of: maybe not all of us are destined to have the same place in paradise, so to speak.
Adam Mintz 13:03
I think that they have to say this, I really do believe that we we can’t all have the same place in paradise. It doesn’t seem to, you know, to make sense, in a religious way, that we’re all going to have the same place in paradise. And if we’re not gonna have the same place in paradise, so that you have to explain why should that be. And therefore reward and punishment is not in this world, but reward and punishment is in the world to come.
Geoffrey Stern 13:31
So after the rabbis go ahead and say that V’esaf el amov is in fact, something that is referred to for a tzadik, for a very righteous purpose person, then in our very same Pasha, they have a problem, because Ishmael also dies. And when Ishmael, it uses the exact same phrase. So again, I think the easy read on this is that we’re not seeing anything unique here, just as Abraham bought a burial ground every Hittite bought and Canaanite bought burial ground. This concept of being gathered to your people, is also not distinctive, and it would apply both to Abraham and it would apply to Ishmael. But the rabbi’s very cutely, then do have to answer the question. And one of the beautiful things about asking a question is it’s like a Rorschach test, you get to to see an answer. And the answer they give is wonderful, which is that Ishmael actually did Teshuvah, he repented. And at the funeral of Abraham, he gave Isaac kavod [respect] like he was the firstborn he let him walk first. And then I he became a tzadik so, in answering this difficult question that is posed, we get the rabbi’s to reveal a story about how both of Abraham’s children after his death, or at his death, were reconciled, with each other, which is kind of nice. But nonetheless, this concept of being gathered to your people, what does it mean to you?
Adam Mintz 15:30
gathered to your people, to me means that that’s the end, you know that we all are going to reach an end, and we’re all gonna die. And we have to feel that just as if they are just like this community in life, this community and death also gathered to your people, this community in death. I don’t know what it means. Now we know what it means this community in death in terms of paying Shiva calls, and in terms of the community come together to help people can help console people. But it’s interesting, and you’re right for picking that up. It’s really an amazing line. The idea that there is community in death for the dead people as well. It’s such a strange notion, isn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 16:19
It is it is. And you know, the title for this podcast is Life is with People and so his Death. And of course, the book Life is with People sheds light upon the Jewish life in the shtetl, how truly it was, with people, we, the Jewish community all of the Shabbat rules and all that brought people together, it was a tightly knit community, with every many social institutions that bring us together. And it seems to me one of the explanations and I’ve been reading this book by John Levinson. Last week, he wrote a book about the loss of the Beloved Son, which obviously impacted on the Akeda, The Binding of Isaac. But this week, he talks about the Jewish concept of the afterlife. And he starts on the premise that most of us most biblical scholars, but most of us really believe that in the Old Testament, there is no true concept of an afterlife, that death has a finality to it. You know, when Jacob believes that Joseph was killed, he says, I’m going into the pit of Sheol, it wasn’t an afterlife, he was literally going into the pit, there was nothing that was ever said about death, that made it some gateway to anything else. But he says that that might be mistaken. And what he touches upon as the mistake that we are making is that we in the West are so individual oriented, and not community oriented. And his argument is, and it is born, as much as anything else from this concept of gathered unto your people, is that the Jewish concept, even and we can say the ancient Israelite concept was that more than anything else, you live through your progeny. And so if you want immortality, you have you have children, and you have a clan, and you have a community. And if you are scared of not having immortality, as Abraham was, when he has was promised so much but didn’t have a child or Job has when he loses his seven sons and three daughters. That was the fact that you had no future. And the truth is that if you look at these stories from that context, he believes, it really fits into so many of the themes that we’ve come to recognize, whether it’s returning to a homeland, whether it’s re establishing oneself, whether it’s becoming free. All of these reflect on the community. The first example that he gives is the example of Noah, Noah, right before he dies. God says, unlike Gilgamesh, I’m not going to make you eternal. What I promised to do is to never destroy your seed never to destroy the future. And that to him was very real. And he argues it’s hard for us to understand how real that is. Because we are so individually wired and oriented.
Adam Mintz 19:51
Yeah, I mean, that’s a very strong point. I mean, the the idea is that we’re individually wired it’s very hard for us to think about how things affect other people, especially when it comes to death. I think in life, sometimes our interaction with other people is important because it relates to us. But in death, that’s so much harder, isn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 20:17
Well, absolutely. And, and what he does is he pushes back against, “Oh, I get what you’re saying. You’re kind of saying that, yeah, you die, and it’s your end, but your kids live on. And somehow, whether they’ll they’ll remember you, or something” according to that kind of idea. And he says, no, no, it was much more material, physical, visceral. And he really says that way, you have to go back then, and read these texts. And you will start to see these very, very strong patterns. That in fact, there’s this corporate consensus of what the people of Israel are. And that through your people, I mean, I think you have to think of Shlomo Carlebach’s great song, when he sang Am Yisrael Chai… No , I need something else. And he added to that Od Avinu Chai, not only does the people of Israel live, but my father still lives. And he took that from Joseph who wanted to know, he wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question or whether he turned a question into a statement. But he, the link is there. That in truth, the perspective that you’re getting here is a perspective on the eternity and Immortality, but it is part of a corporeal/corprate life that was was very real to the figures in the Old Testament.
Adam Mintz 20:59
There’s no question that That’s right. You see, it’s interesting, then in the Old Testament, there’s very little mention, if anything, about a world to come, you see, let me ask you a question. Why is it so important for Abraham to bury Sarah? If they didn’t know about life after death? Why is that so important,Is it important for the living? Did Abraham want to know where she was buried?
Geoffrey Stern 22:36
The first thing that you can say, if you just look at our Parsha, by itself, here’s the way the partial reads, Sara dies, Abraham’s wife dies, he needs to buy a burial plot, not just for her, but for him and future generations. And that is manifested by the fact that he has to buy it, he has to have a deed to it, he has to be able to own it going into the future. It’s not simply as the Hittites are saying to him, Hey, no problem, you can bury your wife like Rachel, on the side of the road, if you will, no. And then what happens is in between the story of him buying this burial ground, is the story that you’re going to speak about this Sabbath of finding a wife for his child. And again, here, it flows right into that narrative, that he could not die, until he was assured that his son would have a wife and by having a wife would be able to have children, and his seed would live. So it’s not as though the Bible goes off into a tangent or some editor had to stick in this story somewhere and decided to stick it in where he did. It’s actually part of the narrative of buying the burial ground for his wife that ultimately will be for him, and for his next generations, then finding a wife for his son. He’s almost checking the boxes. And then it says, And he was gathered onto his people and buried in that cave. So I think that the story really holds up to answer your question of what what did he think? It seems as though it’s one narrative, one organic concept of his perception of how he would ensure the future and you can call it immortality you can call it a life after he’s buried. But that I think is is the kind of the honest read of the story and it becomes fascinating from that perspective. If you also notice before everyone dies, and this includes Ishmael, we get one of these genealogies where they talk about their children who begat, who and who begat who. And so again, it’s it’s all part of this uninterrupted narrative about the Bible’s view, it wasn’t that it wasn’t addressing the issue of death. and future, I think it was addressing it in a fascinating way.
Adam Mintz 25:35
Now, do you think that it made it better, that people lived so long? You think the fact that people live to be 127 years old, and in you know, in Noah’s time they live to be 900 years old? You think that changes the perspective on death, or death is always dead?
Geoffrey Stern 25:57
I think death is always death. And of course, we all take at with a grain of salt, the question of did they really live that long? Right?
Adam Mintz 26:07
Are those right? You have to wonder whether that’s the truth? Given the fact that, that those numbers are real? You think that makes a difference? Abraham lives to be 175?
Geoffrey Stern 26:21
Yeah, yeah, I think one of the fascinating things that Levinson brings up is that if you look at Psalms and later writings, many times when it talks about God’s powers, to revive the dead, in parallel verses, it will say how he heals the sick. And, you know, we have to remember in those days, many times, if you got sick, that was the end of things, so to speak, there was this concept of sleep. We know that when Eve was created, she was taken from the flesh and the bones of Adam, in the sleep. So I think that these length of years, and also the ability of these people to live and to persist, it’s part of it. But to me, the biggest takeaway from all of this goes back to my original perception when I was young. And that is there’s no question that the biblical text loves life as we know it. You can make a case for immortality of some way. But it’s very hard to make a case of a an unembodied soul. When when ever there is any mention of the miracle of life, or what could possibly happen, whether it ultimately ends up in the idea of the resurrection of the dead, that would be a natural direction for Judaism to take, because life was so important, because the physical life that we know is so important. You know, I was always struck, for instance, by these laws that you can’t wear your ritual fringes your tzitziot at a graveyard. And the reason is because you’ll make the people that are dead jealous, because you can only do mitzvot good deeds, when you’re alive, there is no question that whether there is a sense of an afterlife or not. Whatever sense there is, is in the physicality of living. And that’s maybe why their days are so long, because the emphasis is definitely on this world. And if you were great, it would be easy to say, well, they lived 60 years and they went up to the pearly gates, but no, it’s it’s much more impressive if you live 950 years, I think.
Adam Mintz 29:11
Yeah, well, there’s no question about that. I’ll just tell you, we’re coming to the end. I’ll tell you a story about the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds were all buried in France. But after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. There was a couple of members of the Rothschilds family who thought that their immediate relatives should be interred and taken and buried in Israel. They had been so committed and given so much money to create a Jewish community in Israel. They thought that the Rothschilds should be buried in Israel, and they did that they moved the bodies from France to Israel. And the story has it that the President Charles de Gaulle, called one of the Rothschilds. And he said to him like this, he said, I want to tell you something. He said, Do you consider yourself French? And the Rothschilds said, Of course, I consider myself French. He said, Let me tell you what I think it means to be French. To be French means to be proud of who you are. To be French means to fight in the French army. And to be French means to be buried in France, when you move the Rothschilds from France to Israel, their burial, they’re no longer French, in my mind. Isn’t that interesting that, you know, 5,000 years later, that idea still exists. That idea that you define yourself by where you’re buried. And if you want to be French, you need to be buried in France. I thought that story really spoke spoke worlds about how we view the importance, it’s a little off topic from what you’re talking about. But it really helps us to appreciate what Abraham was thinking, when he acquired this burial plot.
Geoffrey Stern 31:19
You know, the term that comes to mind is the term at the end of the story L’achuzat Kever, you’re right, is the whole purchase of this. This burial site was more than just purchasing a burial site, it was establishing where he maybe bought some land elsewhere, we don’t really know as you said before, this is the first time that we see that this Wanderer is actually putting a stake in the ground and buying something. But this l’achuzat Kever is defining who you are. And I think that part of this whole process is talking about when we plan for the future. And when we plan for our burial, but also for our children, we are giving a sense of our vision of the future and de Gaulle, got it. But I think definitely, the Bible gets it as well. I will just finish by saying, I think the obvious question that you could ask is in the Old Testament, if you didn’t have any children, you were as good as as dead. But there are exceptions. There’s this surrogate birth, which is called Yibum [Levirite marriage] , where you can build up someone who passed away in an artificial like way. And there is, as you mentioned a few weeks ago that Abraham and Sarah converted people to their movement. When someone converts, they change their Hebrew name to Ben Avraham, or Ben Sarah. And then there was the rabbis. And the rabbis felt that if you have a teacher and you impart to a student information, culture, a worldview, that too, is a way of ensuring that the future is there. And when we make the blessing on the Torah, every week, we use an even rarer form, which is Chaie Olam, it’s very rarely used, but we say that Hayei Olom B’tochenu, that this eternal life is in the Torah and by that we mean study, exchanging views doing what we do here on Madlik. So at any level, I think there is a wonderful lesson in Chayei Sarah and yes, it’s a good thing to call the portion Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah rather than the death of Sarah, because there are many more messages about life and good living than they love about death in this Parsha so Shabbat Shalom.
Adam Mintz 34:01
I would definitely agree Shabbat shalom. Geoffrey, enjoy Israel. Shabbat shalom, everybody. I will look forward to see you next Thursday night at 8pm. To talk about Toldot the story of Isaac and Rebecca Shabbat Shalom to everybody.
Geoffrey Stern 34:16
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/357282