It’s all very well to accuse Judaism of being patriarchal, but the fact is that tradition has a matriarchal theme that comes to the fore when parents bless their daughters on Erev Shabbat, saying,
“May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah”.
Sarah heads the list. Her name literally means “princess”, so that she shares equal status with Abraham, whom the Bible calls a prince. The sages call her a prophet and say that her gift of prophecy was greater than Abraham, able to see right into the spirit of a person or situation.
When Abraham sought a wife for Isaac, he looked for a woman with Sarah’s qualities. She was beautiful all her life, in character as well as appearance; she was sinless, determined to live in harmony with God, her husband and the world.
THREE OR FOUR COUPLES?
The death of Sarah recalls the tradition that three couples – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah, were buried in the Cave of Machpelah. This name is from “k-f-l”, “double”.
Why Abraham chose this as a burial place is explained in “Pir’kei d’Rabbi Eliezer”, which says that when Abraham bought the site from the local inhabitants he was visited by three angels. He wanted to give them a feast but the calf he chose ran into the cave of Machpelah and he went after it. In the cave he found the grave of Adam and Eve, and decided that the family would have their last resting place there.
Hence there are two traditions about Machpelah – one that says that three couples were buried there, and another that says there were four.
The site was holy both to the monotheistic faiths who all revere the Biblical patriarchs, and (in theory at least) to all mankind, who, whatever their nation or creed, descend from the first man and woman.
PROTECTING OUR CEMETERIES
The Machpelah theme illustrates our age-old concern that our dead should be properly buried.
One of the first things we did when we settled anywhere was to establish a cemetery. The silent graves there speak volumes. Historical researchers, who do not necessarily have a personal connection with the people buried there and sometimes no personal affiliation with Judaism, find cemeteries an indispensable historical resource – for example, the Jewish cemetery in Prague despite its higgledy-piggledy look.
Tragically, our cemeteries were treated without the slightest respect wherever antisemites had the chance, and this still goes on. What to do about such attacks is a major problem, but from the internal Jewish point of view we need to make sure that we do not compound this savagery by our own neglect of our cemeteries.
It would be the final indignity if we left old graves to fall apart and disintegrate because of our neglect.
WHERE DID ABRAHAM COME FROM?
“And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2). The word “came” leads us to ask where he had been. Was he not at his wife’s bedside when she passed away?
Some link this verse with the story of the Akedah in the previous chapter and say that when Sarah heard that Isaac had nearly lost his life the shock killed her. Others (e.g. Rashi) suggest he had been looking after his flocks at Beersheva. Ramban argues that since a Biblical wife had her own tent (Gen. 24:67), Abraham came from his tent to hers.
It may be that “came” reflects mere linguistic usage; it does not mean he physically came from anywhere but simply proceeded to mourn when she had died.
The question we ask is however not merely why he came but why he mourned first and wept for her afterwards. Surely human nature would go the other way! But perhaps there are two reasons, not one, to cry when a person dies.
The first tears are the outpouring of emotion. The second are in a sense more intellectual. “To mourn” is “lispod”, which has the sense of eulogising, giving a “hesped”. What does a eulogy do? It describes, it assesses the person who has died. Mourning is not just feeling but thinking, reflecting, contemplating. The mind arouses the heart. If the past saw many years of shared life when you thanked God for the person who has now gone, their death inevitably, tragically concentrates your thoughts. No wonder, like Abraham, you cannot help crying.
Judaism knows this, but it also promises that the Almighty will “make death pass into life eternal, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles.
He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com