The Torah opens with the story of the human “family” – the descendants of Adam and Chavah (Eve). It then proceeds to tell the story of the Family of Israel – the descendants of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Yaakov, Rachel and Leah. In the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah – “The Life of Sarah” – we find the story of the passing and burial of our matriarch, Sarah. After the eulogy for Sarah, Avraham purchased a plot in the city of Hebron which contained a cave known as the “M’oras HaMachpelah” (Genesis 23:9). It was there that Sarah was buried, and later, Avraham, Yitzchak, Rivkah, Yaakov, and Leah were buried there. Rachel was buried outside of Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19, 20), and the reason for this exception is mentioned at the end of this letter.
Why did Avraham desire this particular cave? The midrashic work, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, explains that it was because Adam and Chavah were buried there, and it tells the following story:
A calf from Avraham’s flock had run away and entered the M’oras HaMachpelah. Avraham followed the calf there, and when he entered, he found Adam and Chavah sleeping on beds, with lights above them, and a good incense-like fragrance above them. Avraham therefore wanted the M’oras HaMachpelah as a burial site.
Why was it important for Avraham to acquire the site where Adam and Chavah are buried? I would like to suggest the following answer:
When Avraham was told to journey to the Land, he was given the following Divine promise, one which was later repeated to Isaac and Jacob: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3). This promise made Avraham aware that the chosen family that would emerge from him and Sarah would have a responsibility for all the families of the earth. He therefore wanted the future members of this family to be reminded of this responsibility when they would pray at the site where their ancestors are buried, for at this site, Adam and Chavah, the ancestors of all the earth’s families, are also buried.
When I moved to Jerusalem, I discovered a profound teaching which can give us a deeper understanding of the universal significance of this cave for our people. I mentioned this teaching in a previous letter; however, before we review this teaching, we need to remember that the Hebrew term Adam also refers to the first man/woman, as well as to humankind. For example, the Torah states regarding the Divine creation of the first human couple:
“He created them male and female; He blessed them and called their name Adam on the day they were created” (Genesis 5:2).
The teaching that we are going to review is from Ramban (Nachmanides), a leading sage, biblical commentator, and kabbalist of the 13th century. According to Ramban, the secret of human history can be found in the following statement of the Torah:
“This is the book of the descendants of Adam” (Genesis 5:1).
What “book” is this statement referring to? The Ramban explains:
“In my opinion, this alludes to the entire Torah, for the entire Torah is an account of the descendants of Adam.”
I asked my teacher, Rav Aharon Feldman, a leading sage of our era, how he understands this explanation of Ramban, and he said:
“This means that the entire Torah – both written and oral – is the story of the reconstruction of humanity, from its fall in the Garden of Eden until its renewal in the messianic age.”
If the entire Torah is the story of humanity, then why does the Torah focus on the story of the People of Israel? The beginning of an answer can be found in the following Divine statement to our people:
“You are Adam” (Ezekiel 34:31).
The Creator is revealing to us that the story of our people represents the human story, from the fall in the Garden of Eden to the renewal in the messianic age. In this spirit, it is written regarding Israel:
“But they, like Adam, have transgressed the Covenant” (Hosea 6:7).
The commentator, Rashi, offers the following explanation: Just as Adam was brought into the Garden of Eden and yet violated the Divine mandate, so too, the People of Israel were brought into the Land of Israel, and yet violated the Divine mandate. Rashi’s explanation is based on the Midrash which states: “Everything that happened to Adam happened to Israel” (Yalkut Shimoni on Eichah 1:1).
We are reminded of the connection between our story and the human story when we pray at theMe’oras HaMachpelah in Hebron, for our family’s ancestors are buried there, together with Adam and Chavah – the ancestors of all the families of the earth.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. It is written: “Sarah died in Kiryas-Arba which is Hebron” (Genesis 23:2). The name, “Kiryas-Arba,” literally means, “City of Four.” The Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, explains that this name alludes to the four couples that are buried there: Adam and Chavah, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Yaakov and Leah. (Sotah 13a and Eruvin 53a)
2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the story about Avraham’s purchase of the M’oras HaMachpelah, and he writes:
“Let us add the tradition that Sarah was not the first to be buried in this cave. Adam and Chavah already rested there. The parents of humankind were the first to be buried in this place, and they were to be joined by the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, the spiritual parents of humankind. This is why Avraham chose precisely this cave.” (Commentary on Genesis 23:19)
3. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer states that when Avraham first entered the cave, he found Adam and Chavah sleeping on beds, with lights above them, and a good incense-like fragrance above them. In his commentary on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi David Luria cites the following tradition from the Zohar Chadash on the Book of Ruth regarding the fragrance above Adam and Chavah:
This was the fragrance of the spices in the Garden of Eden (for an entrance to the Garden of Eden is there).
4. Rachel is one of the four matriarchs of our people. The Torah tells us that Rachel died during childbirth, and that she was buried outside of Bethlehem:
“Thus Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. Jacob set up a monument over her grave; it is the monument of Rachel’s grave until today.” (Genesis 35:19:20).
Why didn’t our father, Yaakov, bury our mother, Rachel, in the Me’oras HaMachpelah in Hebron? The Midrash cites a tradition that Yaakov chose to bury her near Bethlehem, because he foresaw that our people would pass her burial site on the journey into exile, and that Rachel’s soul would pray for us (Genesis Rabbah 82:10). This tradition, states the Midrash, is based on the following prophecy of Jeremiah:
“A voice is heard on high, wailing, and bitter weeping: Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. Thus said Hashem: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment, says Hashem, and they will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future, spoke Hashem, and your children will return to their border.” (Jeremiah 31:14-16)