The Value of Good Wives and the Nature of Good Death

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 22, Part two

Innate Goodness and Careful Wife Selection

Avraham referred to the advantages he had from birth when he spoke of (24;7 in Hayye Sarah) “Hashem who took me from my father’s house, and my place of birth.” Instead of the simplest reading, R. Arama says Avraham meant Hashem had implanted in him a different temperament than the people among whom he resided, qualifying him to have a child to whom Hashem would give the Land of Israel.

All parsha appropriate, yet he now digresses to emphasize the significance of choice of spouse, the care to take in finding the most worthy wife, because they are the first step in achieving perfection, in both worlds (and for one’s children). He goes through Eshet Hayil, the end of the book of Mishle, where Shlomo Hamelech extols the virtues of a great woman (and, for R. Arama, also of our internal “wife,” the inclination to the physical) line by line.

[We have too much more to do in Hayye Sarah itself to study Mishle with R. Arama. His taking the time to engage the text so fully does suggest, however, proper marriages were an issue of his time. He has made more of a fuss about Avraham’s concern about Yitzchak’s wife than I think he would, unless the issue was alive in his time in some specific way.]

Death Is Not Always Death

After his discussion of Eshet Hayil, R. Arama takes up our parsha, beginning with Sarah’s passing. He denies Sarah fully died during her husband’s lifetime, claims she was alive and kept her husband alive, as he continued to glory in her (I think he means).

R. Arama is going to argue gava means the soul or intellect stays alive and mavet means death. The verse says va-tamot Sarah, Sarah died, however. He notes it says she died in Kiryat Arba, a phrase he takes metaphorically as the place of the four elements (earth, wine, air, and fire, the dominant view of the physical elements until the 1800s). In those four building blocks of her physical form, she indeed died, the rest of her removed itself to a more hidden place.

In other places, Scripture signals the idea with the phrase, va-yigva, va-yamot, va-ye’asef el amav, usually translated as “breathed his last, and died, and was gathered unto his people.” Gevi’ah means physical desiccation only, the reason Baba Batra 16b reads the word to apply only to the righteous, who “die” only in terms of physical deterioration.

Exceptions to Gevi’ah

The Torah does not write gevi’ah regarding Moshe Rabbenu, says R. Arama, because Devarim 34;7 asserts Moshe’s physical strength never left him, where gevi’ah is exactly the loss of physical powers. (For Moshe, I think he is saying, death went differently, without the physical deterioration before the spirit left to go elsewhere).

Scripture never uses gevi’ah as a transitive verb, an action done to someone else (no one causes gevi’ah to another, although people do kill other people), convincing R. Arama further. On the other hand, Scripture sometimes uses gevi’ah alone to describe death. When Hashem tells Noach the flood will kill all creatures, Bereshit 6;17 the verb is yigva.

Va-ye’asef el amav, the third part of the phrase for the death of the righteous, means the person’s spirit left the body before its physical life ended, and went elsewhere. Am for R. Arama means the truest connection to Hashem, the reason Rut told Naomi amech ami, your am is my am, meaning she was undertaking all the highest elements of the religion.

The Problem of Yishma’el

Bereshit 25;17 says Yishma’el died, using the phrase R. Arama has spent so long defending as a marker of the death of the righteous. Hazal gave one answer, Baba Batra 16b saying he repented before he died. R. Arama reacts with a common phrase when a later author wants to disagree with more authoritative earlier ones, im kabbalh ne-kabbel, ve-im lav, if a required tradition, I accept it, If not… he has another idea.

[I wonder whether he struggled with Hazal’s version because he could not accept Yishma’el had repented fully enough to earn the special status of the righteous, dying only physically. The Gemara itself didn’t have to mean that, because the Gemara did not make the expansive claims for gevi’ah R. Arama had.]

R. Arama thinks the “gathering unto his nation” for Yishma’el could mean his evil nation, where Yishma’el received his deserved punishment. In other words, va-yigva, va-yamot can indicate only a physical death, the soul or spirit living on to join its proper place, whether good or not.

To support the distinction from Avraham, he notes the verse says Avraham passed away be-sevah tovah, zaken ve-save’a, at a good old age, old and full of years, to R. Arama an indication the loss of his physical body did not bother Avraham at all.

The Point of Mourning and the Difficulty of death

All of this was true of Sarah as well; Avraham mourned the loss of her physical presence in his life, the separation from the woman with whom he had spent so long, the mourning of the sting of the serpent, the cause of all death.

Braodening his scope, R. Arama says people come in two basic groups, those who live totally animalistic lives, for whom death is complete and total, and those who choose a human life, illuminated by the candles of mitzvah and the light of Torah, where reproofs of discipline are the path of life (from Mishle 6;23). Only this latter group has an immortal soul (a significant claim, people have to earn immortality of the soul), and among them the more physical a life they have led, the harder is the separation of death.

Before he moves on, he makes a brief comment explaining why Avraham and all the Patriarchs cared to be buried with their wives. When a man and a woman have partnered over many years, he says, have grown together in their endeavors in this world, it’s clear they will and should want to be buried close to each other. The idea has a modern sense of marriage to it, although it does not quite explain itself—if the body is incidental, burial only a way to dispose of it respectfully, it’s not clear why we should care where we are buried.

His next section, on the value of burial, will give us an answer.

Burial as a Physical and Spiritual Good

The Torah gives one reason for burial, Devarim 21;23, ki killelat elohim talui, usually translated as “for a hanged man is the curse of Gd.” R. Arama chooses a less common reading of Elohim, honored people, the verse saying it’s a disgrace to good and honored people for bodies to be left lying around like dogs or donkeys. In addition, their staleness affects the air, bringing illness, plague, and death [a reminder people knew the connection between corpses and plague long before the germ theory of disease. They were missing crucial pieces of the mechanism, but knew the overall connection].

Third, for the soul to be freed, the body needs to decompose, what burial achieves. R. Arama knows those who cremate bodies, knows of cannibalism or feeding corpses to dogs or birds, and dismisses them as forms of avodah zarah, worship of powers other than Hashem (he does not explain how).

Burial teaches us to stay away from all those, is what Avraham sought when he asked the Benei Het to allow him to bury his dead.

A second theme of Parshat Hayye Sarah: R. Arama combined a discussion of wives and death, saying death need not be the end (for some evil people as well, although wholly animalistic ones seem to die fully), the soul migrating to a better place. Relatives mourn their righteous deceased because they will miss their physical presence in their lives rather than out of any sense of death as the end of the person’s existence.

Husbands who mourn their wives also want to be sure to be buried near them, to continue in death what they had in life.  Burial respects the dignity of the human body, protects against disease, and fosters the soul’s freedom from the body.

Next time, we’ll see some of R. Arama’s briefer points as he makes his way through the Parsha.

About Gidon Rothstein

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