The Fantasy of Immortality

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Parshas Chayei Sarah is bookended by two very monumental events in Jewish history – the death of Sarah and the death of Avraham, signifying the first transition of yehadus from one generation to the next. Much of the beginning of the parsha deals with both the reaction of Avaraham to Sarah’s death, as well as the steps Avraham went through to secure her burial place, Maaras Hamachpela. At the end of the pasha, Avraham's death is recorded, but as compared to the description of the death of Sarah is quite subdued (Bereishis 25:7-8):

"These are the days of the years of Avraham which he lived, one hundred years, seventy years and five years. Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people."

The juxtaposition of his being old and being satisfied is taken up the the Ramban:

"He witnessed the fulfillment of all the desires of his heart and was sated with all good things. In a similar sense is [the verse written in connection with Isaac’s life], ‘and full of days’, which means that his soul was sated with days, and he had no desire that the future days should bring something new. This is as it is said of David: ‘And he dies in a god old age, full of days, riches and honor’. This is a story of the chessed of the Eternal towards the righteous ones, and of their attribute of goodness by virtue of which they do not desire luxuries, just as it is said of them, ‘You have given him his heart’s desire’, and not as it is said of other people, ‘He that loves money shall not be satisfied with money’, and as the Rabbis have commented thereon: ‘No many leaves the world having amassed hald of his desires. If he has a hundred, he desires two hundred, if he succeeds in acquiring two hundred, he desires to make of it four hundred…"

At first glance, this seems to be a deserving praise of Avraham Avinu. But there are a few points made by the Ramban that require clarification. For one, the implication is that Avraham did not want to live longer, derived from the statement of “his soul was sated with days.” Why not? It is senseless to imagine he had a fantasy of immortality. To live just another day would mean another opportunity to engage in yediyas Hashem, to possibly uncover a new idea, maybe effectuate an ideological change in someone's life. Why would Abraham not naturally desire this chance? And isn’t this the idea of a future day bringing something new, something the Ramban seems to indicate Avraham rejected, a positive idea? 

There is also the implication that it is an act of chessed by God to allow a tzadik to lack a desire for more than he has received. Yet one could ask, isn't this very attitude the product of the tzadik's internal choosing? Ultimately, he is making the decision to pursue and desire. What exactly is the chessed of God here? Finally, there is the question of the analogy between a person's death and the concept that one who loves money is never satisfied. This analogy needs to be understood in greater depth.  

As mentioned above, one can safely assume that this explanation is introduced here to negate the thought that Avraham had a fantasy of immortality. However, there is one fundamental idea being brought to light in this piece. There are moments in life where we come face to face with our own mortality. More often than not, these reflections emerge from unforeseen events. A car accident, a diagnosis of illness, a close brush with death – all are unexpected, to say the least. Yet it would also seem that there is one moment, when a person has reached a much later age – zakein – where death seems not so far off anymore. And more often than not, at this stage, the fear of this unavoidable end kicks in. Faced with this fear, a person seeks to avoid death at all costs, and the emotion of immortality becomes prominent. The first idea we see from Avraham is that he did want to live longer – every new day would be another chance to study God. However, Avraham did not fear death, and therefore he had no fantasy of immortality. 

This leads us to the second point being expressed by the Ramban. The analogy, explained by the Ramban, seems to link the desire for more days to the desire for money, which is insatiable. What the Ramban might be alluding to is an important idea. There are many reasons why a person feels the need, when faced with his fear of death, to be immortal. One of these is directly tied to the experiences of the physical world. The idea of money, or any physical pursuit, never being one that is completely satisfied is the very “trap” the world of the instinctual sets for its “prey”. Indeed, for the average person, it is never enough. So what does he do? What pulls him back in time and again? The fantasy that the next batch of money will bring ultimate satisfaction. Within this fallacy lies the link to immortality. One part of a person’s fantasy of immortality is that a longer life would be another opportunity to finally fulfill those stubborn, elusive fantasies—complete the bucket list, so to speak. The very fantasy itself serves as a vehicle for more of the same. This helps explain the analogy. The Ramban is telling us that the desire to live forever exists on one level as a means of trying to fulfill the unattainable satisfaction from the physical world. However, we see quite the opposite with Avraham. It was not just that he did not fear death. Avraham died free of conflict between his psyche and his mind, his needs from the physical world fulfilled. He related to the physical world in the proper way, where the enjoyments exist not for their own sake, but to help him in his pursuit of yediyas Hashem. Therefore, there was no desire to live longer, as there was no fantasy to fulfill.

This leads us to the final point. When a person is on this derech, where he understands how the physical world can never provide ultimate satisfaction – the tzadik referred to here by the Ramban – he merits a certain type of hashgacha from God. Whereas the specifics cannot be known, one can assume that God will assist the individual through the world of cause and effect. This is the chessed spoken of by the Ramban, reserved for these unique individuals who are able to attain this exalted level of perfection.