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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Four Exiles in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Chayei Sarah

The Torah Portion for this week describes Avraham's test and struggle to bury his wife, Sarah, in the Land of Israel. This was a particularly difficult test of faith given that Hashem had promised him the Land from the very beginning, and here he is having to negotiate purchasing a burial plot for his wife while her body is still before him, with people of very questionable morality and motivations. 

Sarah is ultimately buried after a plot is purchased in Hebron, known also as Kiryat Arbah, which means the “City of Four.” The "Four" is a reference to the four couples buried in there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Leah. It is also a reference to the four giants that lived there: Sheshai, Achiman, Talmai, and their father. 

The four giants of Kiryat Arbah appear to be clear references to the four main exiles. The first is Sheshai, a reference to Babylonia. Sheshai is a “surname for Babylonia” and also spells the word Bavel (Hebrew for Babylonia) in the numerical transposition known as “Atbash” (Jastrow Dictionary). The Midrash states that this giant had this name because he was made of marble (Shaish in Hebrew) – this appears related to the Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylonia, who had statues made in his honor. 

The second giant, Achiman, appears to be a reference to Persia-Media. His name appears to be a contraction of the names Achashverosh and Haman, the main enemies of the Jewish people in the Purim story. It also appears to reference their action as "brothers" against us. This exile was also a dual one, as it is the combination of two empires, Persia and Media.

The third giant, Talmai is a clear reference to Greece, whose leader in the times of Greek exile was Talmai, Ptolomy in English. 

The fourth giant is not given a name. He is referenced simply as the father of the other three. This is the exile of Edom (Rome), the “father” of the exiles, the longest and harshest by far. This exile also has characteristics of all the previous ones.

The four giants/exiles also appear to parallel the four couples. Sheshai/Babylonia (Bavel), is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, a generation which Avraham had to confront directly - particularly its leader, Nimrod. Avraham is also known for destroying the statues of his father.

Achiman/Persia is an exile and the Purim story are characterized by extreme self-sacrifice, a characteristic of Isaac and the Akeidah, as we saw last week. The Torah also makes references to how Isaac and Rebecca prayed together for a child, and how much of what happened to Isaac and future generations were actually determined by Rebecca's actions, such as the blessing of Jacob over Eisau.

Talmai/Greece was primarily about an affront to the Torah, its Divine origin, and its lifestyle. Torah is mainly a characteristic of Jacob. Jacob, Ish Tam (a wholesome, "simple/straightforward" man) stands in contrast to the godless (or pantheistic) "sophistication" of the Greeks.

The father of the giants/Rome, involves all of humanity. Pax Romana reached the entire world, and in many ways we are still under it today. Edom is Eisav, who was red, also symbolic of Mars and of his military prowess. Adam and Eve represent all of humanity, yet Adam is also an acronym of three people: Adam (himself), David, and Mashiach. David was also red. He was a "kosher" version of Eisav and of the potential that he so badly missed. Mashiach son of David, will come and redeem the entire world, fixing the curse of the snake, and bringing the world back to its fullness and potential, like that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
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