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The Battle of Body and Soul

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

After enduring the incredible test of the Akeida (Binding of Isaac) and the death of his wife, Abraham is forced to enter into lengthy negotiations with the wily Efron in order to acquire a burial plot for Sarah. He finally buys it for the extortionate sum of 400 silver pieces.

The commentators note that Efron's name is spelt with a 'vav' in every instance except for the verse in which the transaction finally takes place. In that verse, his name is lacking the 'vav'. Rashi explains that Efron spoke a lot but did little. He initially told Abraham that he was willing to give away the land, but in the end, he charged a very high price, as a result his value decreases The Baal HaTurim makes a different observation about the missing 'vav'. He notes that the gematria (numerical value) of the name Efron without a 'vav' is 400, the same as the amount of money that he earned from this transaction.(1) What is the significance of this?

Rav Elchonon Fishman(2) explains that when Efron acquired this money it gave him a new sense of value - now he saw himself as 'worth' 400 sliver pieces. Efron's self-estimation was dependent upon his financial status. He fell prey to the common ploy of the yetzer hara (negative inclination) of emphasizing his material status over his spiritual standing. There is a natural tendency to do this because, since the sin of Adam HaRishon, man is far more aware of his body than his soul. Rav Motty Berger(3) observes that we tend to identify ourselves as our body. For example, when a person is sick, he says, "I am not feeling well," seeing his body as his main identity. A more accurate statement would be, "my body is not feeling well," implying that our soul is the main part of us. An essential part of our spiritual growth is to develop greater awareness of our soul and its needs.

We can gain a deeper understanding of the body-soul relationship by making a further observation about the Baal HaTurim's gematria. When Efron received the money he surely felt that he had increased his importance in the world - now he was a wealthy man. However, he actually lost a letter to his name and we know that a person's name represents his essence. This indicates that his 'real value' as a person went down. Moreover, it is significant that the letter that he lost to his name was the 'vav'. The 'vav' is the letter of connection; it means 'and' - it joins concepts and nouns together. Its shape also signifies its connecting ability; it is shaped like a hook with which we can connect two things together. When Efron gained in physicality he went down in spirituality and lost an element of connection with God. When a person gives more importance to his body, then, necessarily his soul will suffer.

The inverse relationship between body and soul is also alluded to in next week's parsha. The prophet tells Rivka that the two babies inside her will develop into two conflicting nations and that when one of these falls, the other will rise. The simple explanation of this sentence is that the nations of Klal Yisroel and Edom will counter-balance each other, when one ascends the other declines. But there are commentaries who see another battle alluded to in this sentence - they say that Yaakov represents the soul, and Esav the body; there is a continual battle between these two forces. If the soul is in the ascendancy then the body will consequently weaken, and if the soul weakens then the body will correspondingly rise.

These ideas remind us of a stark life lesson; the body and soul can be partners or they can be opponents. The Torah teaches that they should be partners, yet the soul must be the leader. In such an instance he can elevate his body to become an instrument of spirituality. However, if he gives the body the leading role then his soul will suffer and he will be unable to live a truly spiritual life. May we merit to make the right choice in this key area.


1. Baal HaTurim, Chayei Sarah, 23:16.

2. Mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, Yerushalayim.

3. Senoir lecturer in Yeshivas Aish HaTorah, Yerushalyim.


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