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B'resheet/Genesis 23:19 And after this, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave
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Although named, "The Life of Sarah", this parasha opens with the death of Sarah, the beloved wife of Avraham, at the age of 127 years. She died at Kiryat-Arba - Hebron - in the land of Canaan and Avraham came to mourn and weep for her. After his initial moment of mourning, Avraham has to find a suitable and permanent burial site for Sarah. He purchases, at enormous cost, the field belonging to Efron the Hittite, containing the cave of Makhpelah and all the trees in and around it, to be Sarah's final resting place. The field and cave are deeded to him, "as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city" (B'resheet 23:18, ESV), after the necessary weighing and counting of money, the writing of the deed and the public witness and affirmation of those who sat in the city gate. Then, and only then, is Avraham able to attend to the burial of his life partner, Sarah. He might have wished for private grief, but this could not have been more public.
Nachmanides makes three comments on this verse, under the general heading that "this section informs us of G-d's kindnesses to Avraham". First, because he was recognised as a prince of G-d - "Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us" (23:6, ESV); secondly, because the promise to make his name great and himself a blessing - "I will make your name great; and you are to be a blessing" (12:2, CJB) - in this case, a great financial blessing to Efron the Hittite, was fulfilled; thirdly, because Sarah both died and was buried in "the inheritance of the L-rd" (1 Samuel 26:19)). The rabbis of the Talmud comment that Avraham did not question G-d or impugn His character at this time: "[G-d] said to Avraham, 'Arise, walk through the land in the length of it, and in the breadth of it, for I will give it to you' (B'resheet 13:17); yet when he sought a place to bury Sarah, he did not find one, but had to purchase it for four hundred silver shekels; and still he did not question My character." (b. Sanhedrin 111a). Ibn Ezra informs us that "that the Land of Israel is superior to all other lands since Avraham went to great expense in order to bury Sarah in it", and adds that the text "shows how G-d fulfilled His word, by starting the transfer of the Land to Avraham and his descendants at such a time as this". G-d's goodness is seen that even at a time of personal mourning and loss, G-d - as it were - compensates Avraham by allowing him to purchase and own, walk about in and use as his possession, the field and Makhpelah cave.
Rabbi Samson RaphaelHirsch, on the other hand, is less concerned about the value or merit of the cave. He is much more interested in the ownership and the sequence of events. The earlier verses in the parasha make it clear that first of all the Hittites together offered Avraham the use of anywhere he wanted for a grave: "Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of G-d among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead" (B'resheet 23:6, JPS) and then when Avraham made his choice of place clear, Efron - its current owner - offered "No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead" (v. 11, JPS). Here are Hirsch's words: "Only after the place and its purlieus had become his permanent possession did Avraham bury his Sarah. Jews create no idolatry and make no parade of their feelings. They build no churches or mausoleums on their graves, nor do they deck them out as gardens. The place where their dead rests remains holy to them forever." Because the gravesite was to remain holy ground in perpetuity (Avraham himself, later Yitz'khak, Ya'akov and Leah were all to be buried there), it had to be properly and fully owned and in Avraham's control. No-one not of the family of Avraham was to be buried there and the site was to remain holy and sacrosanct. Avraham could not proceed with the burial until everything was ready, and once the burial had taken place, it was complete. Finished.
Apart from a side reference (1 Kings 11:15) the only other places in Scripture that use the phrase, "bury the dead", are in Matthew's and Luke's gospel where they both record the same incident: Yeshua's call to discipleship being answered by excuses. "Another of the talmidim said to Him, 'Sir, first let me go and bury my father.' But Yeshua replied, 'Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead'" (Matthew 8:21-22, CJB). Jewish custom requires that burial take place within no more than 24 hours from the time of death, during the first of the seven days of shiva, deep mourning. Notice what is happening in the story. Is Yeshua is riding roughshod over tradition, respect for the dead or the feelings of the deceased person's family? Ask a different question: if the disciple's father had died and not yet been buried, what was the disciple doing out and about already? He should have been at home, mourning, comforting the rest of the family and preparing for the funeral. Instead, he was travelling on the road between two villages, in a crowd of disciples and other followers. He had already taken the choice that he should be with Yeshua and Yeshua was simply pointing out the inconsistency of his words and actions.
Let's take the argument on another step and ask how we bury the dead. How do we, or should we, bury the dead? Well, properly, with due respect, as soon as possible. Countries vary, but in England, it is unusual for a funeral to be held less that 7-10 days after the death and sometimes several weeks may elapse. Funerals are usually a sombre and, particularly to young people, a disturbing or frightening occasion: the hearse, flowers, muffled bells, the leading undertaker's clothes and deportment, the shock of the grave dug in the ground, those first handfuls of earth on the coffin. But once the funeral has taken place, it is a criminal offence to disturb a grave unless burying a spouse in a "double grave" or without a court order to exhume remains. The funeral is final. After the funeral there may be a wake or a meal for the family mourners and close friends, and the estate may take a little while to unravel and distribute to the beneficiaries of the will, but the funeral marks the end of the story.
Now consider not physical remains, but spiritual remains. Do we have the same finality of process over sin and sinful habits as with a funeral? Do we follow the proper sequence of actions and events? In one of the more frequently quoted verses in the Bible, part of the liturgy in many churches, John tells us, "If we acknowledge our sins, then, since He is trustworthy and just, He will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing" (1 John 1:9, CJB). Everybody is comfortable with the first part: when we confess or acknowledge our sins, Yeshua will forgive them. And yes, that is wonderful news and a mighty promise to claim when being harassed by the accuser of the brethren. But it isn't the end of the story. Yeshua also purifies us from wrongdoing. Hmm, what does that mean? It means that the sin is not just forgiven but cleansed, expunged, eradicated. Not everyone is happy about that, as can be seen from the way that many people seem to fall in (or perhaps even commit deliberately) sin time and time again, the same sin, on multiple occasions. What happened to the purification? Some patterns of sin are deeply ingrained or addictive and may take time to break, we know that, but there should always be progress. Once we have laid our sin down at the foot of the cross, it should be buried, left there, dead. The problem of repetitive sin is where we go and pick it up again and take it back for ourselves. That is a criminal offence in the kingdom of G-d!
The Psalmist tells us that "He has removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west" (Psalm 103:12, CJB). Have you any idea how far that is? It is a long way. In another verse, used as part of the Taschlich ceremony each year on Rosh HaShana, one of the prophets is granted an amazing insight into how G-d handles sin: "He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19, ESV). Another prophet adds, echoed in Hebrews 10:17, "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:34, ESV). Is this because G-d has a bad memory, or can't reach down to the bottom of even the deepest sea? No, it is a symbol that our sins, when confessed and repented of, are completely and finally gone. Dead, buried, finished. Baruch HaShem - Praise God!
Further Study: Isaiah 43:25; Acts 10:34; Romans 6:14
Application: Are you still plagued by a repetitive sin habit? Or does the enemy constantly make you feel guilty about past sins that you have already confessed? Today is the day to put an end to it. Confess it once more, make sure that you really have repented and know the L-rd's forgiveness. Then tell the enemy to go and take a long walk off a short pier and have no more truck with his lies!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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