According to tradition, Sarah was not the first person to be buried in the Machpelah cave in Hebron. Already buried there were Adam and Eve. Subsequently three more couples joined them: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.
Why was this burial cave called “Machpelah”? Machpelah means “doubled.” The Sages in Eiruvin 53a explained that it is a double cave, containing two rooms or two floors. The Talmud tells of one scholar who risked entering the cave. He found the Avot (the Patriarchs and Matriarchs) in one room, and Adam and Eve in the second.
What is the significance of the Machpelah cave having two rooms? In general, what is the function of burial?
There are two paths of spiritual growth and enlightenment, each with its own advantages. The first path utilizes our natural faculties of reasoning and analysis. When functioning properly, our powers of intellect can achieve wonderful results. They enable us to acquire precious character traits, and serve God through an inner awareness.
However, the mind is bound and influenced by the body. When the body is swept away by cravings for physical pleasures, the mind also loses its direction. These physical desires can distort our perceptions and warp our reasoning, and we are left without guidance to enlightened living.
Therefore, God created a second means for spiritual progress: the Torah. The Torah is independent of the physical body, unaffected by its proclivities and desires. It is an immutable guide to the path of integrity and holiness. Certainly the powers of the human mind can never provide for the same level of sanctity as that attained through the God-given instructions of the Torah and its mitzvot.
Yet, the path of the human intellect retains a special advantage. The observance of mitzvot, while very lofty, has no direct influence on the body itself. The body is still attracted to physical desires, and remains at odds with the Torah’s spiritual goals.
Optimally, the two methods should be combined. If our performance of mitzvot can awaken our hearts and inspire our minds, a harmony is established between our physical actions and our inner awareness. Since our mental faculties are part of our basic nature, when the mind connects with the Torah, the physical side also becomes integrated with the precepts of the Torah. This refinement of the body could not have occurred without combining together the Torah with our natural powers of intellect and reason.
After the sin of Adam, death was decreed upon humanity. This was not an arbitrary punishment. The purpose of death is to separate body and soul, enabling both to be repaired and refined. The soul, unburdened with the body’s physical desires, is mended and refined in the World of Souls.
The body also requires spiritual correction. It too was formed in God’s image, and has tremendous spiritual power when it complements the holiness of the soul. While the soul is corrected in the World of Souls, the body is repaired through burial, as it returns to its original elements.
What does this have to do with the Machpelah cave? Burial in the double cave is a metaphor for the two methods by which the body is refined and elevated.
The first method, utilizing human intelligence and reason, is exemplified by Adam and Eve. The first man and woman were created with the highest level of pristine talents and powers. With their robust mental faculties, they embodied the use of native intellect and reasoning for spiritual advance.
The Patriarchs and Matriarchs, on the other hand, were the origin of the Jewish people, paving the way for the Torah’s revelation at Sinai. They represent the second spiritual guide, that of the Torah.
The double burial cave of Machpelah combined together these two paths. One room contained Adam and Eve, the pinnacle of natural intellectual capability. The second room hosted the Avot, the progenitors of the Torah. The name of the city, Hebron, comes from the word hibur (“connection”), hinting at the combination of both paths of elevating the body.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 53-55. Adapted from Midbar Shur pp. 259-262)