Four Types of Dignity

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Four Names For Hevron, Four Types of Death

At the beginning of Parshat Hayyei Sarah23;2, the Torah says Sarah was buried in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron; Kli Yakar points out Yalkut Shim’oni provides two more names used for the place, Eshkol and Mamrei. Because the place was used for burial, Kli Yakar assumes the four names relate to types of death.

Some people die in retribution for their sins, like Tzlofhad (according to his daughters), Bamidbar 27;3. Others die for others’ sins, children for their parents’ sins, the righteous for the sins of the generation [he treats these examples as if they are obvious, when each requires significant discussion. But not here.].

The last two, the ones that will matter for us, are death by natural causes. Kli Yakar refers to the inevitable separation of the four elements, the accepted fundamental components of the world in his time; we would express the same idea as the natural aging and breakdown process of the physical body. [An idea Rambam certainly agreed with, but I am not sure we always notice—these very traditional thinkers are clear death is not always a sign of punishment or sin. It atones, but that does not mean sin always brings it.]

Finally, there is mitat neshikah, death by a kiss, the death of the righteous, a death of connection (a kiss connects romantic partners), where a person’s thoughts and soul connect to God too fully to allow for continued physical life. [I was always taught mitat neshikah meant it came with no pain; his idea of the person’s soul leaving the body because it became too connected to the divine feels new and beautiful. It suggests people can outgrow their physical sides.]

The Names Reflect the Death (and Burial)

Four names for Hevron, four types of death [and we expect the Torah to use the appropriate place-name for each person’s death, I think he is implying]. Those who die for their own sins are mamrim, rebellious ones (what Moshe called the Jews, Devarim 9;7), would be buried in Mamrei.

Losing close relatives is called shkol, the root Rivkah uses when she tells Ya’akov to flee Esav, Bereshit 27;45, lest she be bereft of both of them (eshkal gam sheneikhem) on the same day. When a Jew passes away because of others’ sins, those left behind are in this state of shikul, and for them Hevron would be called Eshkol.

Natural death—the breakdown of the body, for Kli Yakar the four elements—brings the name Kiryat Arba, Town of the Four. In reverse, Hevron, with the root hibbur, connection, refers to the death of joining the divine.

Sarah combined these last two, passed away of natural causes and also by having connected with the divine so much and so well. She passed in Kiryat Arba, in her case also Hevron.

Instead of a casual comment on place names, Klei Yakar saw a description of types of death, with information on the nature of Sarah’s passing.

Space for Sarah’s Funeral

The few pieces of Gra I knew before including him in this year’s roster show (and he was known for) a keen arithmetic sense, in our parsha, too. Avraham wants to buy a burial plot for Sarah, and in his negotiations with Efron, he eventually throws out the figure of four hundred shekel of silver. Onkelos interprets him to say a parcel of land worth four hundred shekel. How much is that?

The Gaon points out the courtyard (Azarah) of the Mishkan was 5000 square amot, making a beit kur (fifteen times the Azarah) 75,000. Arachin 25a says a beit kur of Temple land would be redeemed for 50 shekel, meaning eight such plots would be redeemed for 400. The 400 shekel Efron suggested, and Avraham paid, bought a plot of land of eight beit kur.

Eight times 75000 is 600,000 square amot. Since Sukkah 7b says people take up an amah of space, we realize the area Avraham purchased could hold 600,000 people. Final piece of this elegant puzzle: Ketubot 17a said the passing of a person, the loss of their Torah presence in the world, is most appropriately marked by 600,000 mourners, to parallel the number who originally received the Torah.

Avraham bought a plot of land big enough to hold the right number of people to see Sarah to her final rest.

[I don’t think the Gra thought there were 600,000 people at her funeral, I think he was finding a meaning for the idea of a piece of land worth 400 shekel.]

Two Views of the Repetition of Eliezer’s Story

The Torah records Eliezer’ encounter with Rivkah at the well as it happens, then gives us the version Eliezer told her family. Commenting on 24;42, Hatam Sofer points out Rashi thinks Eliezer changed certain details to make the story more less open to their questions (such as telling them he gave her gifts only after she told him who she was, when he in fact had given them to her as soon as she gave his camels water, the condition he had set to find a wife for Yitzhak).

Ramban disagreed because when he says I came today to the well, 24;42, the traditional reading understood it to say he left Canaan and arrived the same day, an idea Ramban assumes he would not have shared with them. Ramban instead adopts an idea Rashi had quoted, the Torah values the conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs enough to include it at length despite having no new information.

Quantity and Quality

His next paragraphs give an alternate reading that solves the problem of why Rashi included R. Aha’s idea in his commentary, if he thought the new version did have new ideas (at the end of it, he writes “this is what I said before the learning sessions in the winter of 5598/1837-8,” suggesting Torat Moshe is more of a collection than a running commentary). Tradition said the Torah was written in letters of fire before the earth was created; such holy and elevated material could be expressed very sparely, with a few letters and words.

Human speech takes more time to make itself clear, so the Torah gave it more room. Hatam Sofer likens it to R. Yohanan’s comment, Shabbat 145b, Torah scholars in Bavel must be more careful to wear dignified clothes because they are not knowledgeable. The itself significant needs fewer trappings of office.

Eliezer’s speech is given space to raise it to the level of achieved by God’s original Torah with much fewer words.

Betuel the Nebach

Twice, Ha’amek Davar spots indications Betuel played a minor role in his own family. After Eliezer gives Rivkah gifts, she runs to tell her mother’s household, 24;28. Rashi commented that girls share their news with their mothers before their fathers. Ha’amek Davar finds it simpler to believe that Rivkah’s mother was the central figure in the household, Betuel subordinate to her.

He says it again when Rivkah’s family reacts to Eliezer’s story, 24;50. We hear that Lavan and Betuel answered Eliezer, Rashi spotting an example of Lavan’s impudence, jumping in to answer ahead of his father. Ha’amek Davar accepts the rebuke of Lavan, yet thinks it also again shows Betuel’s insignificance (notice that Ha’amek Davar thinks it was still evil of Lavan to speak up first).

Death, Sanctity, and Family Dynamics

For Hayyei Sarah, Kli Yakar focused on the cause of Sarah’s death, Vilna Ga’on on the size of the proper piece of land to bury her, where Hatam Sofer considered the balance between quantity and levels of sanctity in the Biblical text, and Ha’amek Davar spotted indications Rivkah’s father was marginalized in his own family, by her mother and her brother.

A sub-theme of the parsha: finding the right dignity for all.

About Gidon Rothstein

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