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Torah Sparks

November 10, 2001/5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Genesis 23:1 - 25:18 (Hertz, p. 80; Etz Hayim, p. 127)
Triennial - Year I: Genesis 23:1 - 24:9 (Hertz, p. 80; Etz Hayim, p. 127)
Haftarah - I Kings 1:1-31 (Hertz, p. 90; Etz Hayim, p. 142)

This Shabbat’s Torah Portion Summary

(23:1-20) Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham, after bargaining with Ephron, acquires the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, as a family burial plot. This is the first Jewish acquisition of property in the Land of Israel.

(24:1-9) Abraham sends his servant back to Aram-Naharaim ("Aram - of the two rivers" = Mesopotamia) to find a wife for Isaac.

(24:10-28) Eliezer, Abraham's servant, has been sent to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. He arrives in Haran, and finds Rebecca at a well, where she passes his "test" of compassion and diligence.

(24:29-49) Eliezer tells his journey's purpose and recounts his experiences to Laban, Rebecca's brother, and how God led him to find Rebecca for Isaac.

(24:50-52) Laban and Bethuel agree to allow Rebecca to go with Eliezer.

(24:53-67) Rebecca consents to go with Eliezer, and is given a farewell blessing by her family. Rebecca goes to Canaan and is wed to Isaac.

(25:1-6) The genealogy of Abraham's descendants from his second marriage - to Keturah.

(25:7-11) Abraham dies and is buried next to Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah.

(25:12-18) A genealogy of Ishmael's descendants. Sarah died in Kiriat-arba - now Hebron - in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham arose from the beside of his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, "I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site, that I may remove my dead for burial". (Gen. 23:2-4)

This Shabbat's Theme: Paying Appropriate Final Respects

  1. Jewish law is unequivocal in establishing absolutely, and uncompromisingly, that the dead must be buried in the earth. God's words to Adam are, "For dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return (Genesis 3:19). Later, the Bible crystallizes God's words into positive law, "Thou shalt surely bury him" (Deuteronomy 21:23). (Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, pp. 55-56. Also, see on cremation, mausoleums, and autopsy.)
  2. Early burial (as a sign of respect) is a long-standing Jewish practice. It is based upon Deuteronomy 21:23: "You must not allow his body to remain on the stake overnight, but must surely bury him the same day". However, a delay in burial is permitted if it is "for the sake of his honor", e.g., for the purpose of making a coffin or providing shrouds or to enable relatives and friends to pay their last respects. (Talm. Sanh. 47a)
  3. To accompany the dead to their final resting place is considered a high religious obligation. The famous remark of the eleventh century French commentator is a good indication of the Jewish attitude. Rashi comments on this command of Jacob to his son Joseph to bury him: "Deal kindly and truly with me" (Gen. 47:29). Why "kindly and truly" (hesed ve-emet)? Rashi's explanation is that all other forms of kindness may be in antici- pation of reciprocal kindness from the beneficiary. At the back of the mind of the donor there may be a self-seeking motive so that his kindness" is not "true," i.e., completely sincere. The dead, however, cannot reciprocate. (Louis Jacobs, What Does Judaism Say About...?, p. 48)
  4. The initial care of the deceased has one major purpose: to respect the God-given vessel in which the soul resided. The human being is sacred in Jewish tradition and the manner in which it is brought to its final resting place has been shaped by the ultimate value of kevod ha-meit, honoring the dead. (Ron Wolfson, A Time to Mourn A Time to Comfort, p. 53)
  5. When I was a young rabbi in a congregation, a burial at which I was officiating was held back incredibly at grave side because the cemetery burial crew decided to take a lunch break. We stood there dumb-founded until our cantor, a Holocaust survivor, sprang to the casket and by himself strained to bring it to the grave. With tears in his eyes, he exclaimed, "Whenever a Jew lie dead in the open, whenever we could, we risked our lives to bury the person and now we should wait!?" - Everyone of us, young and old alike, participated in the burial to the last shovel of dirt. Our tears mingled with our sweat. (Author)
  6. When scholars are studying, and a funeral procession passes or a wedding, they shall not interrupt their study if enough are present (a minyan) with the bier or the bride for the appointed duty. If not enough are present, the scholars shall leave their study to attend to them. (Avot Rabbi Nathan, VIII, 11b)
  7. Just as there is a Jewish way of life, there is a Jewish way of death. Two basic considerations come into play when death strikes and the laws of death and mourning become applicable. One consideration involves the principle of kevod hameit, treatment of the deceased with reverence and respect. The other involves the principle of kevod hechai, concern for the welfare of the living (surviving relatives and friends). These two principles provide the basis for many of the laws and customs pertaining to death and mourning. (Alfred J. Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why, Chapter 3, Death and Mourning, p. 49)
  8. In times long ago, funeral expenses were so high that kinsmen would abandon their dead and move away. Rabban Gamliel II (80 - 110 C.E.) ordained that he be buried in simple linen raiment. Following his example, the financial burden was lifted (from the Jewish masses). (Talm. Moed Katan 27b)

“Sparks” for Discussion:

Of course, this is the Sabbath and it being a day of joy, we should limit our discussion on the subject of death. Nonetheless, there are just a few pertinent "agenda items", based on the above theme, which may warrant consideration and discussion at this time.

If there is no hevra kaddisha (a traditional burial society) associated with your synagogue or your Jewish community would it be feasible to establish such a committee to assist bereaved families in making funeral arrangements? How would it help keep expenses down? How can the congregation (aside from clergy and close friends) get involved in comforting mourners who are members? To what extent should there be "outreach" to bereaved Jews in the community who happen not to be members of any synagogue?


And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying... (Gen. 23:3)

Generally, when a person suffers a loss or other misfortune, he becomes bent over under the sorrowful burden he is carrying. He falls from the spiritual level he had attained, and is often overcome with despair. But with Abraham, we are told that "he stood up from before his dead" - he stood up fully, remaining unbowed (Minhat Ani).

May we all be granted such strength in sorrow and may we be granted life's choicest and joyous blessings. Shabbat Shalom.

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