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Avraham's Mysterious Tenth Challenge

parsha sefer bereishis Nov 20, 2019

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It was a stormy night, and a battle ship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, looking into the foggy night ahead of him. Suddenly, he heard the look-out shout from the observation post, “There’s a light on the starboard side!”

“Is it steady or moving?” the captain asked.

“It’s moving,” the lookout replied. This meant they were on a direct collision course with the other ship. The captain quickly ran up and grabbed the ship radio. “We are on collision course!” he signaled to the other ship. “Change course 20 degrees immediately.”

The signal quickly came back ‘”Advisable for you to change course.”

Infuriated, the captain immediately replied ‘”I am a captain. Change your course NOW.”

“I am a seaman second class. You had better change your course 20 degrees,” came the reply.

By now, the captain was outraged. ‘”I am a battleship. Change course or suffer the consequences!”

Back came the signal, “I am a lighthouse.”

The captain changed course.

As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to jump to conclusions, assuming that we know the truth of a situation when, in fact, we have completely misjudged it. One of the most powerful learning experiences a person can have is that of a paradigm shift- a shift in perspective whereby we learn to see something in a fundamentally different way. This concept is at the core of a crucial insight in this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah.


Avraham’s Tenth Challenge


Chazal, our Sages, tell us that Avraham was faced with ten challenges along his spiritual journey. While it is commonly understood that Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, was Avraham's tenth test, many commentaries posit that the tenth test came after the Akeidah; they suggest that Avraham's tenth trial was the death of his wife, Sarah, and the episode of burying her in Ma'aras Hamachpeilah. This assertion seems strange, as the willingness to sacrifice one's own son seems to be the ultimate challenge, incomparable to the apparent test that followed. What, then, was the true nature of this challenge, and why is it viewed as such a difficult test? 


On the most basic level, it appears as though Avraham was challenged to overcome his grief of losing his wife, as well as to deal with Efron, a conniving, merciless cheat. There is, however, a deeper answer, one that relates to the power of paradigms and perception. Perhaps Avraham's challenge was a question of perception; a challenge to perceive Sarah's death as an opportunity to grow rather than a reason to fall apart, a chance to build rather than fall apart. Viewed in this light, Sara's death was not the end, but the beginning. Let us explore this idea.


Eternal Marriage


Chazal teach that marriage is eternal. Man and wife are created as one before birth and are then torn apart and born individually, charged with the mission to connect and recreate that oneness in this world. Man and wife are thus born into separate families, at separate times and locations, and must then embark on the journey to find each other and reconnect as one. After a lifetime of building that oneness, man and wife remain eternally one in Olam Habah, the World to Come, enjoying the bond they created during this lifetime.


The Source of Marriage


This explains one of the unique sources for the laws of marriage. Mesechet Kiddushin, the tractate of marriage, details the various laws regarding how a man can marry a woman. One of these ways is through money, as learned from the transaction between Avraham and Efron. The Gemara draws a parallel between Avraham’s use of money in acquiring Ma'aras Hamachpeilahand a man’s ability to use money in order to create a spiritual and Halachic connection to his wife, pointing out that both use the word "kicha"(Kiddushin 2a).


It seems a bit strange, even ironic, to derive a source for marriage from a case in which a man's wife dies. However, this is not ironic, nor is it a coincidence; it is a reflection of the deep truth that marriage is eternal. Through buying this plot of land, Avraham planted the seeds of his eternal marriage to Sarah, as they would be buried together and remain bonded as one even after death. This explains another unique detail of Ma'aras Hamachpeilah.


The City of Chevron


Ma'aras Hamachpeilahis located in the city of Chevron, a word which means connection, stemming from the root chaver - the Hebrew word for friendor partner. Chevronis where Avraham and Sarah are buried together, where they solidified their eternal connection. 

It is interesting to note that the Torah repeatedly describes how Avraham purchased the plot of land in front of the entire town; this purchase was, in a sense, Avraham building an eternal marriage between himself and Sarah, and a wedding must be performed before a kehillah (public group of people).


Thus, we can see how Avraham's tenth challenge was to perceive this as an opportunity to build, as opposed to an ordeal to overcome. This wasn't Sarah's death, it was the next stage of their eternal connection. This beautifully explains why the Torah records Avraham’s death specifically at the end of this week’s parsha. Once he has built the foundation for their eternal connection, Avraham is able to join Sarah in the next world, married forever.


Kiddushin and Nesuin


We can take this idea of eternal marriage even further. In Jewish law, there are two stages in the marriage process. The first step is kiddushin, followed by nesuin. Originally, the custom was to perform kiddushin a year before nesuin, leaving a full year until the marriage process concluded. The obvious question, which many Jewish thinkers ask, is the nature of the relationship between kedushin and nesuin. Why is there a two-step process of marriage?


While there are various explanations given, the Rambam explains that although kiddushin and nesuin are both fundamental to the process of marriage, they serve completely different functions. Kedushin, the first step of marriage, is actually a step backin the relationship. It creates an issur(prohibition) between the man and his future wife, while also making them forbidden to anyone else. After this step back, nessuin is then two steps forward, creating a much stronger and more meaningful marriage, as the couple have just spent an entire year apart, longing for one another. This is a classic example of a yeridah l'tzorech aliya, a step down in order to take a giant leap upwards.


Perhaps this is why we specifically learn the mitzvah of kiddushin, and not nesuin, from the episode of Avraham burying his wife. In a very deep way, Sarah's death was the epitome of kiddushin. Her death created a painful, heartbreaking separation between Avraham and Sarah. However, this was only temporary. This “time apart” would soon be followed by nesuin, when Avraham would join her, completing their eternal marriage. At the end of this week’s parsha, Avraham is niftar (passes away), buried next to his wife in Ma'aras Hamachpeilah, connected eternally.




The Maharal takes this idea one step further. He explains that all of techiyas ha’meisim (the resurrection of the dead) will begin from Ma'aras Hamachpeilah. Why is this so? What is special about this specific location? It is because Ma'aras Hamachpeilahserves as the paradigm for eternal marriage. Man and wife are created as one before birth and must then recreate that oneness during this lifetime, remaining eternally one in Olam Habah- the World to Come. But there is one last step: they are then reborn into this world as one during techiyas ha’meisim. This is why the Hebrew word for "grave", kever, is also the Hebrew word for "womb". The grave is where we are buried, but it is also the place where we will be reborn at the end of days. In other words, we are like seeds planted in the ground, just waiting to sprout. This is part of why husband and wife should be buried together.


This was Avraham's tenth and final test, a challenge of deepening his perception. While on the surface, Avraham was burying his wife, facing the death of his life’s partner, there was a deeper layer here. He was also planting the seeds for their eternal connection.


Truly seeing is not about whatwe see, it's about how we see. This is the deep truth about perception; we get to choose how we see the world, how we experience life. Our paradigms can empower us, or cripple us. Our world view can inspire, or paralyze. The choice is solely up to us. That is the beauty and potential tragedy of perception. Avraham teaches us this lesson most powerfully when it comes to marriage. The connection we build in this world is not fleeting and ephemeral, it is infinite and eternal. Let us be inspired to walk in the footsteps of Avraham, and build deeper and more empowering perceptions in life.



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