Parashat Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18
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Caves have always been places of wonder and hidden treasure.
What could possibly cause a journalist on his way to the North Pole to make a detour? In the case of Jerome J. Collins, it was a discovery in Virginia. The meteorologist and science correspondent for the New York Herald was one of the first to set eyes on (and set foot in) the Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley, which were discovered in 1878. These caverns are still known for the magnificence of their stalactite and stalagmite formations, though it turns out that their hidden treasure was not in the scientific realm. Once it was "open sesame" for tourists, these natural wonders did much for the local economy.
As for Collins, despite the detour he was able to join the Jeannette Arctic Expedition on time; however, he along with other members of the expedition died of exposure and starvation in 1881. One can't help but wonder if a cave would have provided much needed shelter from the elements.
Caves have always been places of wonder and hidden treasure – think Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but they can also be a "dead end." Plato's Allegory of the Cave is about the limits of our senses. A group of prisoners live their entire lives shackled in a cave facing a wall, where all they can see are the shadows on the wall. That is their reality, a sad copy of the world as it truly is. If one of their own were to escape out into the real world, he would be enlightened yet unable to transfer that knowledge to his peers. Plato's cave is not a shelter, it is a barrier hindering true perception. (Ironically, those of us who have trouble grappling with Plato's words can gain an understanding of his concept visually through an award-winning animated film: The Cave: An Adaptation of Plato’s Allegory in Clay.)
Last week, Lot and his daughters sought shelter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom. Mistakenly believing they were the last inhabitants on earth, the daughters successfully conspired to become pregnant by their drunken father. (Genesis 19:30-38) The cave that sheltered them also kept them from perceiving the truth.
This week in parashat Chayei Sarah Abraham seeks an eternal home for his recently departed wife Sarah. Abraham acquires the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23). It turns out to be quite a piece of real estate which will eventually also house Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. The word machpelah is related to the Hebrew word kefel "double," and this is also how it is explained in the Targum, the Aramaic translation. In Tractate Eruvin (53a), Rav and Shmuel differ as to the reason the cave is called "Machpelah." One relates it to the ancestral "pairs" who are buried there, while the other understands it to be a two-storied cave. So even if, as many commentators claim, Abraham caved in and paid an exorbitant amount for the property, he still got a "two-fer," a double-chambered cave.
Biblical caves are places of shelter and protection (see King David's experience in 1 Samuel 22; or the musical version in Psalm 57). Unlike Plato's cave, biblical ones don't distort reality but contain an element of added perception. Take Elijah, convinced he is the last remaining prophet, fleeing from Jezebel; he finally finds refuge in a cave near Mount Horeb.
"Come out," He called, "and stand on the mountain before the Lord."
And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind--an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake--fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire--a soft murmuring sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life."1 Kings 19:11-14
Elijah's experience here is not the second-hand reality of Plato's prisoners, his is on-site insight: It is an encounter with the Divine that ensures the survival of the people.
In rabbinic tradition there are stories of rabbis, under threat of death, hiding in caves and keeping Judaism alive (e.g. Shimon bar Yochai). The caves of Qumran sheltered a treasure trove of texts that expanded our understanding of our history. What role does a cave purchased to bury a loved one play in Jewish continuity?
Machpelah… is a visible token of the future. … Judaism has always been more than mere expectation, or fulfillment postponed; it has always looked to some this-worldly expression of progress toward its long-range hopes.W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (revised edition),pp. 164, 165
Perhaps the purchase of the cave settled some doubt in Abraham's mind and provided this wanderer with spiritual comfort. After Sarah's burial, we are told that God blessed Abraham in all things (Genesis 24:1), which may be understood to mean that he achieved a state of emotional equanimity. Now, Abraham's attention turns toward the task of continuity and the focus of the rest of the Torah portion: Finding a wife for his son Isaac.
With Abraham's death at the end of Chayei Sarah (Genesis 25:9), his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, reunite to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah. Jacob, who died so far away in Egypt could rest in peace knowing that he would be "gathered to his kin" in the Cave of Machpelah (Genesis 49:29-30, 50:13) . Though a burial place, the Cave of Machpelah in the Torah symbolizes the spiritual survival of our people.
Rabbi Michal Shekel