CHAYEI SARAH (Genesis, 23:1-25:18) — “The Living Dead or the Dead Living?”

This week’s Torah reading opens with the death of Sarah.  Abraham wanted to bury his beloved wife in the cave where Adam and Eve were buried.  He proceeded to negotiate the purchase of the Cave of Machpela from the Hittites:

“Sell me property for a burial place with you so that I can bury my dead,” …” … Take our best burial site to bury your dead.  No one among us will deny you his burial site to bury your dead.” …”If you really want to help me bury my dead …” (Genesis, 23:4-8)

Did you notice a pattern in the phraseology of the discussion?  In all, burying one’s dead is mentioned seven times.  The Vilna Gaon points out that in a regular discussion such as this, the actual phrase might appear three or four times.  He also points out that while six of the times, it refers to burying the dead, the seventh time, at the conclusion of the negotiations, Abraham is told, “your dead you should bury.” (Ibid, 15)

Why, asks the Vilna Gaon, does the Torah use such a wordy description of the purpose of Abraham’s purchase?  Another question — Why, in the last time the phrase is used, does the terminology switch order?  Six times the Torah mentions burying the dead, and the seventh time it mentions the dead being buried.

The Vilna Gaon suggests a homiletic interpretation of the text:  Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpela as a family plot.  Eventually, three couples would be buried there:  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.  Additionally, the Midrash tells us that Esau’s head is buried there.  At Jacob’s funeral, Esau disrupted the burial, insisting that the remaining grave belonged to him.  In the ensuing altercation, Esau was killed, and his severed head rolled unceremoniously into the cave.

Hence, seven people from the family of Abraham ended up buried in the Cave of Machpela.

The Vilna Gaon suggests that the seven expressions of burying the dead are a prophetic reference to the seven people who would eventually come to rest in the cave.  The first six expressions refer to our righteous patriarchs and their wives.  The final statement, with the order reversed, predicts the burial of our not-so-great uncle Esau.

Back to our second question:  Why does the Torah use the phrase burying the dead” when talking about the righteous, and then change the order to “the dead being buried” in reference to the wicked?

To answer this question, the Vilna Gaon quotes the Talmudic saying, (Brachos, 18) “the righteous in death are considered alive.”  The positive influences of good people allow their memories to continue long after their bodies have been laid to rest.  This is why, in reference to the righteous, the Torah says bury your dead.”  In a spiritual sense, the burial precedes the death because the soul and remembrance live on.

Conversely, “the wicked in their lifetimes are considered as dead.”  Esau, who devoted himself to the empty pursuits of hedonism, idolatry, and murder, lived a life of no redeeming value.  For all intents and purposes, he was dead long before his cruel and selfish heart stopped beating.  Therefore, the Torah says, “your dead you shall bury.”  For the wicked, the spiritual death takes place prior to the actual burial.


Every day is an opportunity to build a legacy.  We can create or we can destroy.  We can be vibrant and productive or we can simply take up space.

What would we do if we knew that today was the last day of our lives?  Would we pray or would we play?  Would we think or would we drink?

Shimmy Biegeleisen was the vice-president of Fiduciary Trust International at the World Trade Center.  On September 11, he told his wife he loved her, told his friend to take care of her, recited a Psalm, and met his Creator.  Hundreds of firefighters, policemen, and just plain civilians spent their final moments saving others.

On the last day of his life, Timothy McVeigh ate mint chocolate-chip ice cream.


Hug your kids.  Give your neighbor back his hedge trimmers.  Give to charity.  Pray.  Live to 120 in good health, making every day special.

Each day is a pen with which to write our autobiography.  Let’s make sure it’s a book worth reading.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.



 “Never Alone” (2016)

Isaac lost both of his parents…  First Sarah died.  Thirty-eight years later, Abraham died.

G-d paid a Shiva call.

And it was after the death of Abraham, that G-d blessed his son Isaac.  (Genesis, 25:11)

What was the nature of the blessing? And why does the Torah need to tell us that Isaac was Abraham’s son? Isn’t that obvious?

Read more.


“A Torah Jew’s Guide to ‘Losing’ Elections” (2012)

…Many of my friends are depressed and despondent.

They have waited four years …They tried. And they failed. And they are depressed.

And they are wrong…

Whenever I go to vote, I utter a prayer. I prayed this past Tuesday. What do you think I prayed for?…

Read more.


“The Living Dead or the Dead Living?” (2009)

… On September 11, he told his wife he loved her, told his friend to take care of her, recited a Psalm, and met his Creator. Hundreds of firefighters, policemen, and just plain civilians spent their final moments saving others.

On the last day of his life, Timothy McVeigh ate mint chocolate-chip ice cream…

Read more.


“Ham’s not Kosher!!” (2008)

Eliezer had a tough assignment.

Sarah was dead. Abraham was a widower with a 37-year-old unmarried son. The future of Abraham’s legacy was dependant upon Isaac marrying and raising the next generation of G-d-fearing “Jews.” It was imperative that Isaac marry a woman who shared his values. In narrowing the field of applicants, Abraham engaged in a bit of “racial profiling.” Canaanites need not apply…

This restriction affected Eliezer personally. This dedicated servant of Abraham had a daughter. He would have loved to have made a “Shidduch” between his daughter and his beloved master’s son. However, it was not to be. Eliezer, you see, was a Canaanite…

Read more.


“Well, There’s Bad News and There’s Good News…” (2006)

…when Sarah heard about her son’s near-death experience, the shock killed her.

… Sarah died too early. She could have, and should have, lived longer…

… Sarah needn’t have died…the results could have been different…

Read more.


“Will You Marry Me… Again?!” (2005)

… She was none other than Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s oldest son Ishmael. … as a result of Hagar’s idol worship, and her son Ishmael’s wickedness, they were both sent away.

Now that Sarah was gone, Abraham decided to remarry Hagar.

… How could Abraham do something like that? Where was his respect for his wife Sarah? … Now that Sarah is out of the picture, he goes back and marries this wicked woman??!!…

Read more.


“White Power!” (2003)

… Old age. A frightening prospect. As we age, we tend to slow down, in action as well as mental capacity. Society celebrates youth, and sometimes barely tolerates the old.

Wouldn’t it be great to be eternally young? Imagine advancing chronologically while our hair remains dark and our skin stays smooth. We’d put the hairdressers and plastic surgeons out of business! Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Abraham didn’t think so…

Read more.


“Do You REALLY Believe That?!” (2002)

…What a beautiful story of faith and miracles! What a marvelous episode of Divine intervention and human acceptance of G-d’s will … What a LIE!!…

Read more.


“Walk a Mile for a Camel” (2000)

… Eliezer stood there watching to see if G-d had fulfilled his request … Why was he still wondering? Hadn’t G-d already shown him the sign? Eliezer requested that G-d show him Isaac’s bride by her offering to water the camels. The offer had been made! Why did he stand there and make her work so hard? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH WATER TEN THIRSTY CAMELS CAN DRINK?!!!!!

Read more.


This is the weekly message at Copyright © 2000-2016 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel ( and chaplain in Monsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 7:34 am  Leave a Comment  

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