Chayei Sarah: Life after Death

Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with the account of Sarah’s death; the first Jewish individual to pass away. Later on in the parashah Abraham too passes away.

Sarah’s death is not the first death reported in the Torah, but the account of her death is different from all other deaths that preceded it. Whereas the death of Adam, for example, marked the end of his life, “All the days that Adam lived… and he died,” Sarah’s death marks a new beginning. The Torah does not immediately turn to the following generation after her passing but instead begins an entire chapter that describes how Sarah was eulogized and wept over after her death and how much care was taken over her burial. This is the first reference in the Torah to the burial procedure and from the moment that Abraham acquired theMachpelahCave, this burial ground has become an important location for all generations to follow until this very day, for it is there where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were buried.

This special attitude towards Sarah’s death is indicated in the parashah’s first verse, which actually doubly accentuates her lifetime, “Sarah’s life was…the years of Sarah’s life,” clearly indicating that Sarah’s death was not the end of the road.

Life and life after life

“Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in thelandofCanaan.” The Zohar explains the secret of Sarah’s death by explaining that “Kiryat Arba” (קרית ארבע), which means “city of four,” actually refers to the four elements from which all physical matter is composed: fire, air, water and earth. As long as a person is alive these different elements are connected until the moment of death, when they begin to decompose. That in this verse Kiryat Arba is also called Chevron teaches us that Sarah’s death was unique. Her physical elements (Kiryat Arba) remained friendly and bound together (Chevron) even after her death, since “Chevron” (חברון) is cognate with “connection” (חבור). This was a new phenomenon that defied the universal law of entropy and unveiled the eternal quality of the Jewish soul, which lives on even after the individual has passed away from the physical dimension of creation. This is why it is forbidden to cremate a dead body, because there is life after death, there is a world of souls and death is no longer a “black hole” on the way to total obliteration, but merely a transition into another category of life. The principal innovation here is that the soul lives on and continues to be connected to the very same body that died and lies buried in the ground.

The Jewish attitude towards death and graves is not an unfounded nostalgic preoccupation with that which was but is no longer; rather it conveys an ongoing connection between the dead and those who are still alive. Although we are aware of the fact that the body disintegrates after death, as Jews we also know that the difference between man and beast remains after death, because the soul lives on. The anti-entropic status of the Jewish body is inherent in every one of us, and in unique individuals, of whom Sarah was the first, it is physically revealed. This phenomenon has even been observed, as we learn from the many accounts of righteous individuals or martyrs of the Jewish faith, whose bodies remained intact even after decades in the grave.

In short, every heart-beat of life is a reflection of the infinite, but although it seems that death is the finite end, Sarah’s death reveals that even after death that power of infinity remains vibrant, like buried treasure waiting to be unearthed. This may merely be a feeble impression of the physical life that preceded it, a hidden force that our physical senses are unable to discern, but someplace out there, in the depths of theMachpelahCave, that point exists: life after life.

“Let my soul be like dust”

Chassidut explains the secret of Sarah’s afterlife, the key to which lies in the concept of “dust.” It is by no accident that Abraham bought theMachpelahCavefrom Efron (עפרון) the Hittite, whose name is derived from the same root as “dust” (עפר). Man was created, “dust from the earth” and after his sin he was destined to die, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yet “dust” takes on new significance when Abraham states his famous expression of submissiveness and lowliness, “I am dust and ashes.” The attribute of submissiveness is implied in our context too, in the abovementioned phrase, “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in thelandofCanaan.”Canaan(כנען) is from the same root as “submissiveness” (הכנעה). As the indicated by the Zohar above, the four elements of the “city of four” (Kiryat Arba) remain connected by merit of “thelandofCanaan” i.e., the dust-like attribute of a submissive soul.

Obviously, not all submissiveness is positive. A compliant attitude could be the result of misplaced self-pity or a lack of stamina, but in general, submissiveness, when it results from the realization that everyone in the world is unique in ways that I am not, is an undisputedly positive attribute, bringing us to recognize that we are like dust beneath their feet. Through such submissiveness, the truly wise are able to learn something new from everyone they meet, “Who is wise? He who learns from every individual.” Submissiveness also implies a sense of surrender, not being a sore loser, but knowing how to acknowledge defeat and realize that I am below my victor.

Dust represents death, the inanimate that has no life-force and so too, the psychological attribute of submissiveness is a kind of dust-like death. In fact, the attribute of submissiveness reaches its peak at the moment of death itself. Throughout our lives we are victorious on many different frontiers―in particular in our victory over death―until we finally reach the end and the moment when we lose everything including our very selves. At this point, the individual experiences entropy first-hand and identifies with it to its farthest extreme.

Throughout his lifetime, Abraham was “dust and ashes,” but Sarah was first to reach the greatest extreme of surrender: death itself. Such submissiveness is apparently so precious that the Ba’al Shem Tov was loath to relinquish it,  “I could rise heavenwards in a stormy wind, like Elijah the prophet,” he said before he died, “But I desire to experience the verse, ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return.’” Experiencing the tasteless flavor of dust is the ultimate sense of submissiveness and lowliness as the sages state, “Be very, very lowly of spirit, for man’s anticipation is worms.”

The song of the inanimate

When we resign ourselves completely to surrender; when we reach the peak of submissiveness―like the Ba’al Shem Tov who did not attempt to overcome death or avoid it, but consciously chose to die (although until then he had chosen life, as we are commanded, “[you shall] live by them [the commandments]”)―then one can reach a new revelation of life. After flowing through with entropy until its very end, one is suddenly elevated far above it.

Usually life is considered to be a function of two phenomena: warmth and movement. The inanimate dust of death is cold, dry and silent. From a psychological perspective, the more submissive one becomes, the more surrender one experiences and the closer one is to death. But there is another life, a higher life that is more delicate and refined but has no sense of movement. It appears to be silent and cold yet it contains a far more profound life-force, a sense of pleasure that has never yet been experienced. Although this would appear to be an inanimate level, because from the perspective of the living it looks like death, nonetheless, at this level one experiences a different type of life, “Silence is praise to You,” “a silent, thin voice.” In order to reach this life one must first submit and die, then the soul sings and praises God with a unique song, “’For to Me every knee will bend’ – this refers to the day of death.”

Thus, when Sarah reaches the final submission, losing everything and dying, her life then becomes a silent life of the highest level; life that continues to emerge within the grave. Sarah at long last reaches “thelandofCanaan”- the land of submissiveness that is the real “land of the living.” At this stage, retrospectively, we discover that there is a way to rectify the flaw of the primordial sin that brought death to the world; here in the Machpelah cave, Sarah and later Abraham, meet up with Adam and Eve. Rectification of the punishment of “to dust you shall return” began at the moment the cave was redeemed from the hands of Efron (עפרון), literally meaning “the little dust.” Then, when Sarah reached the level of “higher dust,” dust became a positive, fertile kind of dust that infused every death that had taken place in the world before Sarah’s with new significance.”

I believe in the resurrection of the dead

Having explained how Sarah’s life did not end with her death, one can begin to sense the mystery of the resurrection of the dead that will take place in the future, as we mention every day in our prayers, “You resurrect the dead… and you are faithful to revive the dead.” The resurrection of the dead is the stage that supersedes death; at which the level of silent, higher life returns and is revealed within our lower reality. Then, retrospectively, it becomes clear that the period of death and burial is nothing more than a temporary slumber until “He establishes His faith to those who sleep in the dust” when the dead arise from their sleep at the “end of days.”

Nonetheless, even before the resurrection of the dead, if we were to ask now, “Is Sarah alive?” the reply would not be unambiguous, because Sarah passed into a different dimension in which the regular definitions of life and death are no longer relevant. The silent life that praises God in a “silent, thin voice” may appear to be “death” from our perspective, but perhaps it is more correct to call it “life”?

This paradox is apparent in the haftarah for this week’s parashah, from the beginning of Kings. King David was elderly and unable to warm his body, he is hardly alive. Taking little interest in his kingdom, he already has one foot in the “kingdom to come.” Yet the passage ends with Bathsheba’s famous proclamation, “May my master King David live forever.” What point is there in proclaiming this when it is quite clear that David has reached the end of life? Yet, if we consider that David is following in Sarah’s footsteps and that as he approaches death he comes closer to the level of life that continues even after death, then stating that “David, King of Israel, lives and exists” is actual reality, not a parable or a dream. This is what the sages mean in the Jerusalem Talmud when they state that if Mashiach is of the living then his name is David and if he is will come from the dead, then his name is David, meaning that Mashiach is David himself, in whom the borderline between life and death is undefined. This is beautifully alluded to in the numerical value of the phrase, “May my master King David live forever” (יחי אדני המלך דוד לעלם), which is equal to 372, “Mashiach” (משיח; 358) plus “David” (דוד; 14), meaning that “May my master the king live forever” (יחי אדני המלך לעלם) equals “Mashiach” (משיח).

1 Comments

  1. Beautiful, heavy and very interesting. Would like to read some more of that.

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