By Rabbi Shmuel Reichman
Chazal (our Sages) tell us that Avraham faced ten tests along his spiritual journey (Pirkei Avos 5:3). While it is commonly assumed that Akeidas Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) was Avraham’s tenth test, several commentators believe that the tenth test was actually after the Akeidah. They suggest that Avraham’s tenth trial was the death of his wife, Sarah, and the subsequent episode of burying her in Ma’aras Hamachpeilah (The Cave of Machpeilah). This assertion is mysterious, as it seems that the command to sacrifice one’s own child would be the ultimate test, incomparable to the ordeal that followed. What, then, was the true nature of Avraham’s test of burying Sarah, and why is it viewed as so incredibly difficult?
On the most basic level, it appears as though Avraham was challenged with overcoming the grief of losing his wife, as well as dealing with Efron, a conniving, merciless cheat. There is, however, a deeper answer, one related to the power of paradigms. Perhaps Avraham’s test was a question of perception; a challenge to view Sarah’s death as an opportunity to grow rather than a reason to give up, a chance to build rather than fall apart. In this light, Sarah’s death was not the end, but the beginning. Let us explore this idea.
Chazal teach that marriage is eternal. Man and wife are created as one before birth; they are then torn apart and born individually, charged with the mission of connecting and recreating that oneness in this world. Man and wife are thus born into separate families, at different 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.
This explains one of the unique sources for the laws of marriage. Meseches Kiddushin, the tractate of marriage, details the various methods by which a man and woman can get married. One of them is through money (kesef), which is derived from the transaction between Avraham and Efron. The Gemara (Kiddushin 2a) draws a parallel between Avraham’s use of money in acquiring Ma’aras Hamachpeilah and man’s ability to use money to create a spiritual and Halachic connection to his wife, pointing out that both use the word “kicha” (take).
It seems 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 with Sarah; they would be buried together and remain bonded as one even after death. This explains another unique feature of Ma’aras Hamachpeilah.
We can take this idea of eternal marriage even further. In Jewish law, there are two stages of 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 was completed. Many Jewish thinkers ask about the purpose and relationship between kiddushin and nesuin. Why is there a two-step process of marriage?
While there are various reasons given, the Rambam explains that although kiddushin and nesuin are both fundamental to the process of marriage, they serve completely different functions. Kiddushin, the first step of marriage, is actually a “step back” in the relationship. It creates an issur (prohibition) between a man and his future wife, while also making them forbidden to anyone else. After this step back, nesuin is then “two steps forward”, creating a fundamentally 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 that enables 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 Parshas Chayei Sarah, Avraham is niftar (passes away), buried next to his wife in Ma’aras Hamachpeilah, connected eternally.
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. Let us be inspired to walk in the footsteps of Avraham and build deeper and more empowering perceptions in life.