Table of Contents
The Years of Sarah
In describing the life of Sarah the Torah uses a description that we don’t find mentioned anywhere else in all of Scripture. “And the life of Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah”. This last phrase “the years of the life of Sarah” is redundant. We find by many others that the Torah enumerates the years of their lives in terms of hundreds, tens, and ones, but never do we find this addendum except by Sarah. Our sages did not hesitate to point this out and to elucidate on what the Torah is trying to teach us here. Sarah was like a woman of 20 when she was one hundred, and she was like a girl of seven when she was twenty. Sarah lived a life free of sin, and she was beautiful throughout all of here years, but more fundamentally the additional phrase teaches us that all of her years were equal in goodness. Sarah lived a good life!
What makes up a good life? How do we define it? Surely the Torah is not teaching us that her 127 years were all equal in goodness, but only for a woman like Sarah who was into her type of lifestyle. But someone else, who enjoyed a different lifestyle, would have thought Sarah’s life to be quite boring and miserable. The Torah is in fact making a very bold statement that Sarah’s years were objectively filled with goodness. What was that magic ingredient that made Sarah’s life so special? It is because she was happy and satisfied for every day of her life. What is the one thing that all lifestyles and all belief systems have in common? They are all pledging to provide a person who lives this way happiness and satisfaction either in this world or the next world, or both. Human beings are all searching for this element to their lives, even though they can’t explain why. Sarah had it, she discovered the secret.
So how should we react to this statement? Is the Torah merely making this statement to pester those who haven’t achieved this level? Perhaps most importantly the Torah is teaching us that it is possible, so we shouldn’t despair. It is in fact actually possible for a person to achieve this type of life, because Sarah did it. If Sarah can do it, than so can we. But if so shouldn’t the Torah teach us how she did it? Certainly G-d knows how she did it. Why doesn’t the Torah teach us the secret of how Sarah did it? The truth is that this problem clearly bothered our sages and thus we find an approach to this problem in the Midrash. “Hashem knows the days of the complete ones” Psalms 37:18 … this is referring to Sarah who was complete in her ways. Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, the great Ba’al mussar and mashgiach in the Mir yeshiva in Poland, elucidates on this teaching. What are the sages pointing to in saying Sarah was “complete” in her ways? Firstly, what is the difference between a “complete action” and an “incomplete action”? Furthermore, what trait inside of a person leads to producing “complete” actions?
Rav Yeruchem explains that a complete action is one without flaw or lacking. We all make many great attempts to do wonderful things in the world, sometimes we don’t even get started with them, other times we drop projects in the middle, or alternatively we finish but leave loose ends hanging. The reason is because we are not pursuing the truth to the fullest extent. When a person is fired up to do something but ultimately he hasn’t worked out all of the details of the plan to accomplish it, the pursuit of truth dictates holding off getting started until the necessary steps have been taken to ensure that the plan can be achieved through to the end. A complete action is one that passes through all of the stages of development until completion without loose ends left hanging. He points out further that one should not mistake this for the disorder called “perfectionism”, because the Torah certainly isn’t advocating that. Rather the secret that Sarah had tapped into was the trait of being a truth seeker. When a person is seeking the truth he doesn’t allow things to be left hanging he doesn’t allow for lacking and flaw, not because of insecurity but because of integrity.
To be a truth seeker means to be committed to follow through with whatever is necessary until completion because that is the essence of truth. We have incorporated this understanding into our slang expressions as well. When someone says things that are not fully accurate we call them “half truths”, and when someone takes an oath it is to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Everyone understands that truth and completion go hand in hand. When a person is dedicated to truth it affects everything they do. It also affects the way they look at life and the way the look at themselves. A truth seeker will not tolerate getting less out of life than is possible to get, because the pursuit of truth doesn’t allow it. A truth seeker will not put in less time, energy, or resources, into an endeavor than they could have, because the pursuit of truth doesn’t allow it. After all is said and done a person who is seeking truth is getting the most out of life and bringing the most out of themselves and the others around them because that is the essence of truth – completion from every side and every angle. Our sages teach us that G-d’s Name is Truth and His Seal is Truth because He is perfect.
The lingering question left to face in light of all of this is, what help is it to be a truth seeker when after all we know the famous saying “man plans and G-d laughs”! How is a person going to achieve completion and satisfaction by being bent on the pursuit of truth if at the end of the day G-d is really running the show? Perhaps we can find an answer to this problem in the continuation of the parshah.
The Eulogy Before the Tears
One of the most astounding verses in this parsha is the description of the scene of Avraham arriving back from Akeidas Yitzchak only to find that his beloved wife Sarah had passed away. The normal way of people is that when such news is heard they immediately burst into tears. Only after crying and releasing the initial pain can they muster the strength to proceed with eulogizing and burying the deceased. Avraham did the exact opposite with Sarah. First he eulogized her and then he cried for her. What was the cause of Avraham’s unusual order in dealing with the loss of his wife?
The commentators have offered many approaches to dealing with this problem. The Netziv says that one of the main reasons why a person breaks into tears first and then eulogizes is because the impact of the death on the subsequent continuity of the one who remains living is too intense to bear. This leads to a breakdown and an overwhelming realization of just how much the life of the deceased meant to them. Only after dealing with that shock can a person muster words to say to eulogize the deceased. If however the impact of the loss is minimal to those who remain living then the eulogy can be said first and this contemplation on the qualities and praises of the deceased can allow for the deeper significance of their passing to be expressed and the tears may then flow.
We saw above that Sarah was not the kind of person to leave loose ends hanging. But what can a person do if G-d has other plans. The Talmud in Kiddushin 38a teaches Moshe said on the day of his passing from this world “And he [Moses] said to them [Klal Yisroel] I am 120 years old today…the verse did not have to write the word “today” what is this word teaching? That G-d sits and fills the years of the righteous ones from day to day and from month to month” as it says “and the number of your days I shall fill”. This means that when a person achieves righteousness G-d arranges that their lives should be full and that they should pass from the world with completion. This answers the question. Sarah didn’t just plan while G-d laughed, she was so truthful to the core of her being and so real with what her purpose was to accomplish in this world that G-d actually helped her complete it. One who really pursues truth not just as a fad or on a whim but follows it through as an essential quality of being will receive Divine Intervention to complete those endeavors that they set out to achieve. That is the general rule, the rest are exceptions.
Sarah not only tried to achieve her purpose in this world she did it, of course with the help of G-d. As a result Avraham was not left stranded or helpless. His life would not be irrevocably altered as a result of her passing, for she had arranged and taken care of all that she needed to in this world before she passed on from it. Although he would certainly miss her companionship, he would manage without her. Thus he was able to focus initially on Sarah’s greatness and eulogized her appropriately and this brought him to the tears of the pain of her loss.
The Hidden Dialogue, The Hidden Cave, and The Hidden World
One of the arrangements that Avraham had to make in order to complete his responsibilities to his wife in her passing was to purchase a burial plot for her. Things in the Cananite society of old were not the same as they are today. They did not have pre-arranged burial plots for every citizen. The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni says that in Parshas Vayeirah when Avraham went running after his herd of cows to slaughter three of them for the messengers one calf ran astray in the field of Efron. Avraham followed it into the opening of a cave in the end of the field. Inside he found a great cave, and within it hidden below was a second layer of great caves, into which he peered and then saw that Adam and Chava were buried there. From that point in time Avraham had a deep yearning to acquire that field and the cave within it. Now that his wife had passed away he realized that this was the most fitting place to bury his wife, as she was the woman who had devoted her life to bringing the human form back to the brilliance that it had before the sin of Adam and Chava. So Avraham went into the settlement of the Bnei Ches determined to acquire this field and cave that was so special to him. The Zohar even asks why Avraham waited until now to make an attempt to purchase this land and offers the reason that he was convinced that to acquire such a special piece of land would require tremendous Divine Intervention, until now he wasn’t sure he would succeed. Now that it was for the sake of Sarah the perfectly righteous woman he was sure he would succeed. Furthermore the Zohar points out that Efron had been in the cave many times before, but all he saw there was a dark pit. Had he seen what was hidden below he never would have sold it. The reason he never saw what was in the cave was because he did not have the merit to see what was in it. The window to the world beyond was blocked from in front of his eyes. Is this blockage merely a function of the fact that Efron was wicked or is there more to it than that?
The Torah then provides great detail in the whole back and forth of the negotiations between Avraham and the Bnei Ches and ultimately the owner of the field Efron. The Malbim points out that there were two dimensions to the negotiations. There were actually some regulations in the region that were brought into question with regards to Avraham’s request to purchase a permanent family burial plot in the area. To even have the honor of owning a family burial plot in the area was reserved only for the most important members of society. This Avraham and Efron were able to work out by making a stipulation that the field would be included in the sale and that the primary purpose of the sale was for Avraham to have ownership of the land for agricultural purposes. There were no limitations upon sojourners purchasing land for this purpose. As an additional stipulation Avraham made it clear that as the owner of the field legally he could do with the cave at its edge that wish he pleased and he even made a point of paying for the whole deal at a grossly exaggerated price.
On a more fundamental level the Malbim points out that the entire culture of the Bnei Ches had difficulty in understanding what was bothering Avraham to begin with. In their belief system burial was done at the time of death only as a ceremonial gesture. After that the bones were dug up and discarded thus making room for the next burial. Therefore they said “In the choicest of our graves, you may bury your dead”. Why should you need to have a place to bury the dead and leave them there forever? Avraham at great cost and under very difficult circumstances refused to give in. He insisted numerous times that he needed “a familial estate for the express purpose of burying the dead permanently” He thus exposed them to the belief that life does not end at death. In fact the purpose of death is to allow the material of the body to decompose and facilitate purification from whatever evil and negativity was associated with it. Ultimately the body is resurrected and reformed to be united once again with the soul that waits for it after death, in the soul world. This resurrected body and soul then live eternally with God in the world to come. In fact the whole point of the customs and laws of burial are to inculcate this belief within us. How many of us realize the deeper significance hidden within the idea of a proper burial?
The Talmud refers to the World to Come as the World of Truth. The reason for this name is because in the world to come the truth of the world and the truth of the role of each person and entity within it will become clear to all. In the world to come the pleasure of the reward is the pleasure of experiencing the truth of what we have made ourselves into in this world. The Midrash teaches on the verse “and you shall do them [the commandments]” don’t read the verse as you shall do them, but rather you shall do yourselves. When a person does a mitzvah in this world it is as if he has made himself. On this line of thought the World to Come is when we will be able to experience the true outcome of what we have made ourselves into through doing the mitzvoth. All of this was hidden to the Bnei Ches, they missed the point of this world. They were hidden to the truth of the ramifications of their actions in this world. Avraham had this clarity, he fought for it, and he thus merited seeing it. He was able to see Adam and Chava in their burial state from the window of this world, the Cave of Machpeilah, the double cave. This is the cave where you can see the flow and the connection from the experience of this world and its second tier of how it affects the status and position of a person in the next world for all of eternity. Avraham acquired that for his children. It is not only the place that he inherited to his descendants but more importantly this fundamental awareness and consciousness.
Carrying on the Legacy of Perfection
“And Avraham had reached old age, he was coming to his last days in this world, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything”. Our sages teach us that this verse means much more than simply stating that Avraham was old and had acquired much. These two verses merit great analysis and research to uncover the many fundamentals latent within them, for our purposes what is necessary to cull are the following two points. The Ibn Ezra says that it means Avraham had achieved that same level of perfection that Sarah had achieved before she left the world. Secondly almost all of the commentators point out that the juxtaposition of these verses with the ensuing section about Eliezer the servant of Avraham taking a vow to find a soul mate for Yitzchak, are to show that Avraham, although near perfection, still has to take care of one more loose end before he leaves this world.
The dilemma is simple. Because Yitzchak was designated to be a sacrifice he has “sanctity” and therefore can’t leave the boundaries of the sanctified Land of Israel. There are no women who are suitable for Yitzchak in the Land of Israel at present. Avraham is either too deeply invested in his affairs in the land or he is physically incapable of taking care of the matter himself. Avraham has no choice but to hand the matter over to a messenger. Herein lays the root of the problem. Both Avraham and Sarah spent their entire lives in the pursuit of truth and completion as we saw above. How can Avraham in the home stretch of his life, leave a loose end of immeasurable importance to be taken care of by a servant? The continued success of Yitzchak is no small matter. Don’t forget everything Avraham has built and all of his efforts will all turn out to be futile if Yitzchak doesn’t carry the torch and pass it on to his next generation thus allowing the Jewish nation to reach fruition. The wrong choice of women for Yitzchak could be catastrophic.
We need to take a deeper look at the servant of Avraham. Who is this “ruler of all that his master possessed”? Our sages teach us that Eliezer was really Og who eventually became the king of Bashan. He was one of the giants mentioned in the end of Parshas Bereishis. He survived the flood by a miracle hanging on to the side of the Ark until the waters receded. He was one of the “educated ones” of Avraham. He connected with Avraham because of his clear belief and knowledge of G-d’s existence that he experienced first hand. He absorbed and integrated his master’s teachings. So great was he in relation to Avraham that his master said about him that he is “Damesek Eliezer”, the word Damesek is a play meaning he is doleh – he draws, and he is mashkeh – he waters or serves the teachings of his master. Furthermore, the verse says that “Eliezer was the ruler of all that his master possessed“. The Midrash says that just as Avraham has achieved total control of his evil inclination so too Eliezer who followed the path of his teacher had achieved this level. If so who better to take care of this one last very important task before passing on?
The matter was obviously not so simple. Avraham calls his servant over and asks him to take an oath while placing his hand under his thigh. He makes Eliezer promise not to take a girl from the Canaanites, no one from the land, only a girl from his homeland Aram Naharyim. Surely the matter is clear to Eliezer, he is a faithful servant, what is Avraham so concerned about? The Midrash says that Eliezer had a daughter of his own whom he wanted to marry off to Yitzchak. In his mind this made perfect sense. Avraham with his deep insight understood that with all of his greatness Eliezer had not yet overcome this particular bias and was blind to it. He forced a very detailed oath upon him in order to cover every last thread of possibility so that the matter would not become confused. Once Eliezer was outmaneuvered his only wish was to fulfill his master’s commands to the fullest extent. The Torah then goes on to enumerate the details of how Eliezer journeyed to Aram, spotted Rivkah, identified her as “the right girl”, betrothed her and brought her to her father’s house. In recounting the events Eliezer is forced to make certain changes in order to avoid conflict with Rivkah’s brother Lavan, perhaps the greatest swindler of all time. So much ink is spilled on this tale and the recounting of it that our sages are taken aback. For what amounts to a few small changes the entire story is repeated, even though no actual legal differences are generated. This is in striking contrast to the myriad laws of Shabbos, for example, to which the Torah only makes a general reference and leaves the rest to be learned from transmission. “More beautiful are the discussions of the servants of the Avos than the Torah of their descendants”. This is the observation our sages make in order to justify this disproportionate allowance of scriptural text for such a seemingly inconsequential matter. What is it that is so beautiful in the repetition of this story? Why is it the beauty of it that justifies its existence? Are these words truly more beautiful than any other words in the scripture? Furthermore, it seems that Eliezer was not completely honest in his presentation of the facts in his repetition. What could be beautiful about lies?
The Malbim explains that Eliezer had completely absorbed his master’s ways and his wisdom. Eliezer understood that Lavan and Besuel (Rivkah’s brother and father) were very crooked people. Once he saw beyond a shadow of a doubt through the tremendous Divine Intervention that he experienced that Rivkah was the right girl, he had to figure out a way to carry out the plan to completion. In truth Avraham had not required that Eliezer take specifically a girl from his family. Therefore Eliezer had no responsibility to ask her what family she was from in advance. Once he saw the type of girl Rivkah was in her character that was enough and he gave her the ring before asking her what family she was from. Lavan and Besuel would never have allowed Rivkah to be taken if there was no specific indication that she was desired based on her family background. Thus knowing that he had fulfilled the wishes of his master and that he had merited Divine Sanction, he took matters into his own hands to make sure that the issue reached fruition. He made a number of changes in the story none of them actual lies but rather extremely clever wording and selective phrasing, for the sake of overcoming the almost insurmountable challenge of the crookedness of the biggest swindler in history. What is beautiful about this event is the fact that the words that were used to achieve the goal were so well chosen, so deeply aligned with the goal, so clearly built out of true wisdom of how to deal with people and situations that are far beyond the boundaries of normalcy.
This message of how deeply a person must integrate the value of truth to the extent of knowing even when to present the facts in a slightly more clever fashion rather than in a plain and unveiled manner in order to achieve what is clearly the right and correct thing in the world is the beauty of this passage. This message carries perhaps more weight than the importance of writing out the actual laws of the Torah in a plain and unveiled manner. From this we learn that many times it is not enough to know the law, for without a deep piercing clarity as to the nature of the situation at hand, the law can not be correctly applied. When the full depth of a situation is grasped, and then the Torah’s wisdom is applied in such a way that it fits the situation and connects a person to G-d from within that situation, that is when we see the true beauty of the Torah.
In his very last days Avraham added on a wife. Our sages teach us that he really took Hagar back. She was now called Keturah because her ways were pleasant like the smell of the incense – ketores. The word Keturah also has connection to the Aramaic word kesher –knot, she knotted her womb from any other man, during the entire time she had been sent away from the house of Avraham. It is indeed strange that Avraham did this. Was he just lonely? Could he no longer bear the fact that Sarah had passed on and he needed a female companion? The theme in the Parsha is completion as a function of the deeply integrated pursuit of truth. It stands to reason that this was also the intent of Avraham now. He wasn’t merely trying to alleviate misery and loneliness; he was living the most complete life possible – which dictated taking a wife even at this late stage of life. The Malbim says that Avraham’s rationale was to bare new children who would be able to partner with Yitzchak in building the world to its ultimate purpose, and to aid him in the service of G-d. This marriage was yet another facet of the completion of Avraham raising and establishing Yitzchak, his continuation, in the world. The Netziv says that the rationale was “and G-d said it is not good for a man to be alone”, that Avraham felt a lacking in the completion as a human without a companion. According to this approach it was not loneliness but rather the acceptance of the will of G-d that moved Avraham to take another wife.
These are the lives of Avraham and Sarah the progenitors of the Jewish nation. Their lives were full and complete, mainly because of their insatiable quest for truth, which brings completion, fulfillment, and Divine Blessing on its heels. Avraham’s pursuit of truth began as a young boy smashing his father’s idols and standing up against an entire world of people who either thought he was crazy or wanted to kill him. He searched and contemplated reality until he had honed his understanding of it. In the end he found the truth, and integrated so deeply that he was able to give it over to others. His wife Sarah, as his soul mate, shared in every step of this journey. Together they truly lived full and complete lives until their very last moment in this world.