Facial Implications by Tzvi Zuckier


In the very beginning of Parshat Chayei Sarah the Pasuk states (Bereishit 23:3), “VaYakam Avraham MeiAl Penei Meito Vaydabeir El Bnei Cheit Leimor,” literally translated,“And Avraham got up from upon the face of his dead and spoke to the sons of Cheit saying.” Why does the Torah use such an awkward description of Sarah in her state of death? Couldn’t the Torah have just said “From upon his dead,” which would have made it quite clear that Avraham was getting up from Sarah’s dead body? 

The Yaarot Devash offers an interesting and satisfying answer to this question. He quotes several Midrashim that say that only those who merited being killed by Neshikah, a rare form of death in which Hashem Himself “kisses” or sucks out a person’s soul in a completely painless way, were buried in Maarat HaMachpeilah. On the other hand, those who die at the hands of the Malach HaMavet, the angel of death, as is the common way for people to die, are buried in ordinary graves. The Chachamim say that the Malach HaMavet causes three things: the death of the person, the subsequent paling of the person’s face, and the unpleasant smell of the corpse. However, Sarah’s death was through Neshikah, and would not have any of these symptoms. The Pasuk says that Avraham got up from “Upon the face of his dead” to point out that Sarah’s face was not pale.  The Torah proceeds with Avraham’s negotiations for the purchase of Maarat HaMachpeilah because only once he discovered that Sarah died through Neshikah did it become important for him to buy this special plot of land designated for those who died through Neshikah.

The Avnei Eizel introduces another question on the same Pasuk which he also explains using the aforementioned Yaarot Devash. He wonders why the Pasuk used the word “Penei,” “face,” to describe the dead Sarah.  His question is based on the premise that ordinarily (according to Rabbeinu Bachaye) a face is the quintessential expression of the inner feelings of a person, for whatever mood someone is in is expressed in his facial features.  If someone is happy, his face will light up, but when someone is sad, his facial features change to a much more gloomy expression (see Ramban to Devarim 21:16). Therefore, if someone is dead, his features cannot reflect on his/her inner core or mood, for he no longer has anything to express. The Avnei Eizel uses the explanation of the Yaarot Devash to answer this question. It is fitting for the Pasuk to use the word “Penei,” even when referring to a corpse, for Sarah died through Neshikah and thus her face did not pale. She still maintained her inner essence even though she had perished.

There is much to look up to in Sarah. Very few people in Tanach are at such a level that they merit death by the kiss of Hashem. Although we may not reach this high level, we must still strive for this lofty goal and reach as high as we possibly can. We must try our best to reach the greatness of Sarah, who can teach us a lesson even in her death.

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