Parashat Hayeh-Sara: Seven Burials in Me’arat Ha’machpela
The opening section of Parashat Hayeh-Sara tells the story of Abraham’s purchase of Me’arat Ha’machpela (the Machpela Cave), where he buried his wife, Sara. Later in the Humash, we read that Abraham was also buried in this plot of land, as were Yishak, Ribka, Yaakob and Leah. According to tradition, Adam and Hava are also buried in the Machpela Cave.
When we read the verses that tell of Abraham’s dealings with Beneh Het (23:1-16), the tribe that resided in the area and from whom he purchased the land, we cannot help but notice a seemingly peculiar repetition. No fewer than seven times in this brief section we find a variation of the phrase "to bury the deceased." Abraham repeatedly emphasizes that he seeks a plot of land "to bury my deceased" ("Ve’ekbera meti"; "Li’kbor Et Meti"), and the Beneh Het (including Efron, who owned the property) likewise repeatedly mention that they want to allow Abraham to "bury your deceased" ("Kebor Et Metecha"). In all, as mentioned, these phrases appear seven times in these verses. Undoubtedly, this is not coincidental, and the Torah seeks to convey some message or make some allusion through this repetition.
The Vilna Gaon (Rav Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797) explained that the Torah here alludes to the seven burials that would take place in Me’arat Ha’machpela. As noted earlier, three couples were buried in the cave after Abraham purchased the land from Beneh Het – Abraham and Sara, Yishak and Ribka, and Yaakob and Leah. The first six instances of this phrase – "bury your deceased" and "bury my deceased" – thus allude to these six righteous men and women who were later buried in Me’arat Ha’machpela.
As for the seventh instance of this phrase, the Vilna Gaon noted that it differs fundamentally from the first six. The seventh instance is when Efron tells Abraham, "Ve’et Metecha Kebor" – "and your deceased, bury." Whereas in the earlier instances the word "Met" ("deceased") is mentioned only after the word "Kebor" ("bury"), in this instance, the word "deceased" is mentioned first. This anomaly, the Vilna Gaon explained, holds the key to explaining the allusion in this phrase. Our Sages tell us that besides Adam, Hava and the six patriarchs and matriarchs, there was also somebody else who was buried in Me’arat Ha’machpela. At the time of Yaakob Abinu’s burial, his brother and adversary, Esav, arrived and protested. He argued that as he was the older twin, he owned rights to Me’arat Ha’machpela, and he did not allow Yaakob’s sons to bury their deceased father. Yaakob’s sons retorted that Yaakob had purchased the birthright from Esav, and thus he owned rights to the family burial plot. Esav falsely denied selling the birthright to Yaakob, and so Naftali, the swiftest of Yaakob’s sons, ran back to Egypt to bring the deed of sale. In the meantime, however, one of Yaakob’s grandchildren – Hushim, son of Dan – saw what was happening and realized that Esav was causing a delay to Yaakob’s burial. Hushim took a sword and beheaded Esav. The severed head rolled into the grave, and was buried together with Yaakob.
The Vilna Gaon thus explained that the seventh phrase – "Ve’et Metecha Kebor" – alludes to the seventh person buried in Me’arat Ha’machpela after Avraham purchased it, namely, Esav. And for this reason, the sequence is reversed. Our Sages teach that wicked people are considered "dead" already during their lifetime. The essential component of a person’s being is not his physical body, but rather his soul, and therefore a sinner, who does not care for his soul and contaminates it through sin, is considered "dead," as his soul, the essence of his being, is in a state of dysfunction. Thus, in alluding to Esav’s burial, the Torah writes, "Metecha Kebor" – that the one who was already "dead" even before his physical demise was buried in Me’arat Ha’machpela.
The Gaon’s brilliant insight reminds us of the special stature and sanctity of the Torah, that unlike every other book, it was written by the Almighty Himself. Each and every word and letter is laden with countless layers of meaning and allusions, and each time we uncover one of these layers, we marvel anew at the infinite depth of the Torah and the great privilege we have to study a text given to us directly by G-d Himself.