“O Captain, My Captain”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the name of this week’s parasha is Chayei Sarah, literally, “the life of Sarah,” the parasha does not really concern itself with Sarah’s life. In fact, the relatively brief introductory portion that deals with Sarah concerns her death at age 127, and subsequent burial in the Cave of Machpelah.

Sarah’s passing is followed by a detailed discursion regarding Abraham’s Damascan servant Eliezer’s successful efforts to find a wife for Isaac, and Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca.

The final chapter of parashat Chayei Sarah, Genesis 25, tells of Abraham’s remarriage, the birth of six additional children, and the gifts that Abraham gives these children before his death. These gifts are meant to ensure that Isaac maintains the position of primary son, rather than Ishmael or any of Isaac’s other six siblings.

The death and burial of Abraham are described in only four verses in Genesis 25:7-10, but these few verses serve as a treasure trove for Midrashic amplification. In Genesis 25:7 the Torah tells about Abraham’s long life: “V’ay’leh y’mai sh’nay chayei Avraham asher chai, m’aht shana, v’shiv’im shana, v’chamesh shanim,” And these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life that he lived: a hundred years, seventy years and five years. His death is described in the very next verse as follows: “Va’yig’vah va’yah’maht Avraham b’say’vah toh’vah, zah’kayn v’sah’vay’ah; va’yay’ah’sef el ah’mahv,” and Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and content, and was gathered unto his people. We are then told that Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury him in the Cave of Machpelah next to his beloved wife Sarah.

The commentators dwell on each nuance of the biblical description of Abraham’s death. The fact that Genesis 25:7 begins with the expression, “and these are the days of the years of Abraham’s life,” underscores that every single day of Abraham’s life was considered important to him. The expression “ah’sher chai,” that Abraham lived, appears only twice in the Bible, and in each case indicates that a person gave up years of his life–Adam gave 70 years of his life (he lived “only” 930 years instead of 1000 years) for King David who otherwise would have been stillborn, and Abraham gave up five years to spare him from seeing Esau’s waywardness, since G-d could not take away Esau’s free will to do evil. The fact that the length of Abraham’s life (175 years) is described with uncommon excess verbiage as “one hundred years and seventy years and five years” is seen by Rashi as a reflection of Abraham’s exceptional righteousness, that he was as innocent and free of sin at 100 years old, as he was at five years old.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that when the Bible states Abraham’s age, the numbers 100 and 75 are followed by the Hebrew word, “shana,”–year, in the singular, rather than the plural, “years.” Only after the number 5, does the Torah use the plural form, “years.” Hirsch gleans from this that people who are blessed with abundance are often dismissive of the “small stuff,” since they focus primarily on the larger picture–-hence the singular, “year.” But, when there is little, each year becomes significant.

The actual death of Abraham is depicted in the biblical text in a unique manner (Genesis 25:8): “Va’yig’vah, va’yah’maht Avraham, b’say’vah tovah, zah’kayn v’sah’vay’ah, va’yay’ah’sef el ah’mahv,” and Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and content, and was gathered to his people. The text employs two expressions to describe Abraham’s passing: “Va’yig’vah, va’yah’maht Avraham,” and Abraham expired and died. This is the first time that the Bible uses the expression, “va’yig’vah,” for an individual. The Malbim explains that “va’yig’vah” means that his bodily strength ebbed, and only then did Abraham’s soul depart, as expressed by the word, “va’yah’maht,” and he died.

From the verse in Genesis 24:1, “And Abraham was old, well on in years,” the Talmud (Baba Metziah, 87a) deduces that old age was introduced into the world for the first time with the aging and death of Abraham. The Talmud relates that because Abraham’s body was firm and youthful even in old age, many thought that they were speaking to Abraham when they were actually speaking to Isaac, and visa versa. So Abraham prayed, and old age came into existence.

The May’am Lo’ez, citing the Midrash Bereshith Rabbah 62:2, states that Abraham also introduced illness into the world and that several days before his death he was stricken with a stomach disorder, and was weakened. The purpose of illness is to weaken the body of the righteous so that they do not pass away while they are still at full strength. Upon sensing their physical weakening, the righteous realize that it is time for their soul to depart. The illness also serves to cleanse the body, enabling the deceased to appear before G-d in a completely cleansed state.

The verse states that Abraham died, “zah’kayn v’sah’vay’ah,” old and content. Samson Raphael Hirsch says that this expression indicates that Abraham had attained the highest spiritual and moral state that is humanly possible. Citing the Midrash, Rabbi Hirsch says that when a righteous person dies, G-d allows that person to get a glimpse of the bliss that awaits him in the World to Come. Thus, Abraham was shown that all that he had labored for in this world, and the self-control that he had constantly exercised to fulfill G-d’s will, was worthwhile, and that the reward awaiting him was very great. Our sages say (Koheleth Rabbah 1:34) that most people never die fully content, and that virtually all people desire more. Abraham, however, died fully content. Still others suggest that Abraham died content because Ishmael had repented during his father’s lifetime, showing respect to his younger brother Isaac, as indicated in Genesis 25:9 as Isaac goes before Ishmael in the burial procession.

Additionally, we are told, “va’yay’ah’sef el ah’mahv,” that Abraham was gathered unto his people. The Yalkut Peninim cited by the Iturei Torah sees in this expression that Abraham’s spirit became part and parcel of the Jewish people, and continues to run as a golden thread through all generations of his descendants.

The Bible indicates that both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father in the Machpelah cave. Genesis 25:10 then reiterates the fact that this was the same field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites in order to bury Sarah, his wife. The verse concludes with the description “shah’mah koo’bar Avraham v’Sarah eesh’toh,” there Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried. Eliyahu Kitov raises the question attributed to Rabbi Tanchuma: Why does the verse mention Abraham’s burial first, before Sarah’s burial, after all, Sarah’s burial had preceded Abraham’s by 38 years? Kitov cites the rabbinic sources who suggest that all those who rendered kindness to Sarah by participating in her burial merited to live an additional 38 years and were present at Abraham’s burial, underscoring the rabbinic dictum (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2) that one mitzvah leads to another.

The Midrash maintains that the elderly ancestors of Abraham, Shem and Aver, who had profoundly influenced Abraham and his family, participated in both Sarah’s burial and Abraham’s burial. According to tradition, it was they who saw through divine inspiration at Sarah’s burial that Abraham was also to be buried in the Machpelah cave and instructed that Abraham be buried there next to his wife, Sarah.

The Midrash describes a highly impressive and moving funeral. At one point, all the great leaders of the world and kings of all nations who had gathered at the funeral elegized Abraham, declaring: “Woe to the ship that has lost its captain! Woe to the world that has lost its leader!”

The Yalkut Yehudah cited by the Iturei Torah explains that some people excel as leaders in times of crisis, others in quiet times. Abraham was an unusually effective leader, proving to be an able captain both in times of calm and in times of storm.

We see how correct the ancient leaders and kings were in mourning for Abraham, whose leadership qualities are so sorely missed today: “Woe to the ship that has lost its captain! Woe to the world that has lost its leader!”

May you be blessed.