By Reb David
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”), begins ironically with the death of Sarah, then recounts Sarah’s legacy via her husband (Abraham), their son (Isaac) and his new wife (Rachel). This narrative poignantly reminds that the “life of Sarah” continues in her family. As for Sarah, so for us. All of us will die someday, and all who die can live on through the lives of others, in memory and in deeds that touch the world.
Chayei Sarah next recounts that Abraham procures a burial place for Sarah that became pivotal in Jewish mysticism. That burial place is the Cave of Machpelah (מערת המכפלה / ma’arat haMachpelah) (Gen. 29:19), where tradition records the burial of all Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs except Rachel.
In Zohar’s mystical imagination, the Cave of Machpelah is a portal between earth and heaven, between “this world” and “the world that is coming.” Its very name suggests a transmigration of realities. The word Machpelah (מכפלה) stems from the Hebrew root kaful (כפל), to “double” or “fold.” Zohar holds that at Machpelah, reality folds onto itself so earth and heaven touch. In the cave’s dark depths, time bends: past, present and future flow together. Machpelah’s bending of time, suggests Zohar, is an entrance to the Garden of Eden, where human consciousness and time were said to begin (Zohar 1:127b).
One needn’t be a mystic to appreciate Zohar’s idea of finding a portal in a burial cave. Memory itself is like a portal, especially in the context of losing someone we love. Loss can feel like losing a part of ourselves that might return not physically but in emotion, spirit and memory. When we recall loved ones, our memory can transport us: we may recall their words, hear their voices or even smell their scent — often when we least expect it. In the foggy mists of consciousness, we find ourselves back in time, feeling the emotions of whatever age we were at the time of our remembered experience.
One may ride off such accounts as heart longings or mind tricks. One can reject countless accounts of such experiences in many religions and civilizations. But even for skeptics, Chayei Sarah invites us to consider that places, experiences and memories can evoke more than their face value. Like a cave, memory and consciousness are deep and layered.
For a local example having nothing to do with death or burial, we need look no further than Beth El, the name of our synagogue and many other spiritual communities. This name recalls where Jacob experienced divinity in his dream of a ladder rising skyward, saying, “Wow, God was in this place [all along] and I didn’t know!” (Gen. 28:16). In tribute of this transformational experience, Jacob called the place Beth El, House of God (Gen. 28:19). When we evoke that name for ourselves, it is as if to say, “As for Jacob, so for us. Just as Jacob experienced his place as a House of God, so too may we experience divinity in this place.” In Beth El, we double back onto Jacob’s experience, when spiritual truth broke into the physical realm and transformed Jacob’s awareness, and we claim a piece of that experience as our own.
So too for the Cave of Machpelah, the “cave of doubling” — where time and space fold together; where memory merges with presence; where past, present and future flow together; where the physical and spiritual mix. So too for Beth El. So too for anywhere, anytime and anyone we imbue with the trust, faith and power to transform our consciousness. This power of transformation is our ancestors’ gift to us: may it also be our gift to the world.
(This post is dedicated to my Zohar teacher, R. Elliot Ginsburg, member of the ALEPH Vaad and professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.)