Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lech Lecha: Avraham's Death As Proof Of The Afterlife

In parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem promises the following to Avraham {Bereishit 15:15}:

טו וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל-אֲבֹתֶיךָ, בְּשָׁלוֹם: תִּקָּבֵר, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה. 15 But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.
Shadal notes that "thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace" does not refer to the body going to be buried with his ancestors, but rather must refer to the soul. After all, Avraham is buried in mearat hamachpela. And, as we see in parshat Noach, Terach died and was presumably buried in Charan, which is quite distant. In Bereishit 11:32:
לב וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-תֶרַח, חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח, בְּחָרָן. {פ} 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran. {P}
Thus, we should interpret "thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace" as joining his ancestors in the afterlife. I would note that at least the idiom existed, with this connotation.

Of course, we can interpret this otherwise, suggesting that generally "go to thy fathers" means death because people were buried in family plots. Once this is an idiom, it does not matter if it is true in the specific case of Avraham, but rather it is simply a poetic way of conveying "death."

9 comments:

littlefoxling said...

I agree with you that the verse is unclear and either explanation works. But, you must ask yourself: if the Biblical authors did believe in an afterlife, and if, for them, it had the same centrality and significance as it does for Jews today, why is it only mentioned in hints and veiled references? Why never mention it outright? It seems like a pretty important idea.

Why have a 42 chapter book on theodicy that doesn’t even mention the afterlife as being even remotely relevant to a discussion about theodicy? Why have chapters and chapters about reward & punishment mentioning rain, war, peace, wealth, disease, poverty, ad infinitum without even mentioning the after life?

Sure, this hint might be plausible. But, you would have expected more. And, as you say, even the hint itself is not conclusive.

littlefoxling said...

Also, perhaps it means go to your fathers because you’ll be dead just like your fathers. Also, maybe there is an after life, but that still doesn’t mean there is reward and punishment in the after life. Also, maybe the after life does exist according to this author, but not in its well developed and central form that it exists in Jewish thought today.

littlefoxling said...

Also, why have a 12 chapter book about how miserable life is cause you are going to die anyway without even mentioning the fact that you never really die except for one veiled verse that might sort of be saying there’s an after life and even if it is saying that the author is unsure.

joshwaxman said...

Good points, though there might, as well, be good answers. Though I might not have those answers.

:)

Foremost, for those that believe in the legitimacy of derash, there is indeed reference to the afterlife. And the question also presumes that in this instance at least, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Could be.

However, just to show how I might go about *starting* to answer your questions, though off the cuff:

Is this really the only reference in all of Torah?

This is *not* the only time this phrase occurs, I think. If Avraham's death is proof of the meaning of the phrase, then it still means what it means in other cases.

For example, we would see Yaakov's death, where it states וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו.

Other cases of afterlife: Yaakov, aggrieved over the loss of Yosef, says he will go down in aggravation to Sheol. We know from extra-biblical sources that Sheol is an underworld.

We also have the concern the Avot showed for burial. Why does Avraham bother purchasing Mearat haMachpela, to have a family plot, if after life there is nothing, and the corpse is just an empty shell? Why is Yaakov so insistent that he not be buried in Egypt? There are plausible answers, but it lends credence to the idea of some sort of afterlife.

Why by Bikurim does the person confess that he has not given it to a Mes? Pharisaic interpretation is as shrouds for a corpse, but if you want to insist on peshat and no derash, does this not sound like ancestor worship? This would imply at least some folk-belief in life after death.

In Bereishit, we have Chanoch, who did not just die, but was taken by Hashem. There is a strong likelihood, IMHO, that peshat in this verse is as in extra-Biblical books, that he ascended to heaven. (Not necessarily the apotheosis envisions in Bereshit Rabbati, but still.) Perhaps one can say he is the exception that proves the rule, though.

All these examples are off the top of my head. It is by no means clear that this is a conclusive list.

As you state, this does not give us the entire developed Jewish concept of reward and punishment in the afterlife. There certainly is expansion on (or creation of) the theme in other Biblical works. And Chazal's midrashic analysis of the texts also feeds into it.

In terms of why mention rain, etc., perhaps the intent was to talk to people on a national level, so national reward and punishment, and blessings and staying on the land of Israel, was what was stressed. And perhaps reward in the afterlife for being a good person went without saying, but the purpose was to give encouragement in the form of reward and punishment while life was going on, as such is more effective. All sorts of answers are possible, and perhaps even plausible.

Kohelet also has a specific point, and whether this is a valid question depends on what you think the point of the book is. If it is all about the vanity of accomplishing material things in this life, because it has all been done before or else will be undone, then an afterlife is beside the point. Or so I might argue.

Kol Tuv,
Josh

littlefoxling said...

Foremost, for those that believe in the legitimacy of derash, there is indeed reference to the afterlife.

Fine. So, you then successfully shown the author believes in it. But, the question still stands. Why would (H)(S)(s)he not refer to it more often given its centrality.

This is *not* the only time this phrase occurs, I think. If Avraham's death is proof of the meaning of the phrase, then it still means what it means in other cases.

Fine. But, the point is, none of these cases are actually dealing with it strait on. The point of the passuk is not to tell you about the after life. It’s to tell you Avraham is dieing. Why not have a pssuk where that’s the point. Especially given all the psukim about sechar ve’onesh and all the rewards and punishments. Why never that one?

the rest of your examples

Same response as above.

In terms of why mention rain, etc., perhaps the intent was to talk to people on a national level, so national reward and punishment, and blessings and staying on the land of Israel, was what was stressed.

IIRC, that’s one side in a machlokes Rambam/Raman. One says that and the other says – I forget. Could be. But, it’s still weird that it’s never mentioned. It’s also sort of convenient. There’s no real textual basis for the distinction that afterlife is a private thing (which I guess makes sense since the afterlife isn’t mentioned in the text at all).

And perhaps reward in the afterlife for being a good person went without saying, but the purpose was to give encouragement in the form of reward and punishment while life was going on, as such is more effective.

Yea, but think about koheles – the whole point of the book is how you are going to die. He doesn’t need encouragement about this world. Iyov too. I’m not saying the this world is unimportant. I just think the afterlife would bear some mention.

If it is all about the vanity of accomplishing material things in this life, because it has all been done before or else will be undone, then an afterlife is beside the point

And also about how there is no action, calculation, knowledge or wisdom in the grave that you are going to.

littlefoxling said...

Also, there’s plenty of personal sechar ve’onesh in the Bible too. For example, many of the stories are about how someone got punished for their sin (think Avimelech sleeping with David’s wives) though, I guess it would be hard to have a story about someone getting punished in the next world

littlefoxling said...

or course i mean avshalom

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

שְׁאוֹל

Anonymous said...

Steg, you have unintentionally alluded to a good proof for olam haba: Shaul, who asks the witch in Ein-dor to raise Shmuel's ghost. Shaul has never talked to Shmuel's ghost before but he correctly assumes that the ghost exists and can be communicated with. I'm no expert on ghosts, but aren't they a kind of non-bodily life after death, similar to our souls in olam haba?

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