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Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

“And it came to pass after Abraham’s death, that God blessed Isaac, his son;
and Isaac settled by the well Lachai Roi.” (Genesis 25:11)

Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with Sarah’s death and closes with Abraham’s death. In between, most of the parasha, or portion, describes the search for a bride for Isaac.

Chayei Sarah states: “And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; vayeiaseif el amav, and was gathered to his people.” (Gen. 25:8) Two things are worth noting about this description: first, no other Biblical personality’s life is summarized this way. It doesn’t announce his age (mentioned elsewhere) but rather, describes the quality of his life. Second, the phrase vayei-asef el amav, and he was gathered to his people, is used in the Torah only for Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses. It can’t refer to burial in an historical “family plot,” because Abraham, Aaron, and Moses are not buried with any of their ancestors. And since Jacob was buried long after his death (when the phrase is used) it can’t refer to burial, generally. So, what exactly does it mean and if Abraham is the first Jew, who are these people he is gathered to?

Nahum Sarna (1923–2005; modern Biblical scholar) addresses the first question, claiming vayei-asef el amav implies a transition to an afterlife, attesting to a Biblical-era belief in an immortal element of a person’s existence. Sforno (~1470–c. 1550; Italian commentator and physician) deals with the second question by connecting Abraham to those righteous people who existed in previous generations. They may not have been as righteous as Abraham, and they may not have been Jewish, but still, they are Abraham’s people. Righteousness transcends faith.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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