1) THE GRAVES OF THE FOREFATHERS
QUESTION: Rebbi Bena'ah used to demarcate the areas of graves so that people would not carry Taharos over those areas and cause them to become Tamei with Tum'as Ohel (RASHBAM), and to warn Kohanim from walking over those areas (RASHI in Bava Metzia 85b, and RITVA here). The Gemara describes what occurred when Rebbi Bena'ah entered the burial cave of Avraham Avinu and that of Adam ha'Rishon.
Why did Rebbi Bena'ah enter those caves to mark the areas of the graves? Adam ha'Rishon and Avraham Avinu both lived before the Torah was given, when all people had the status of Nochrim. The bodies of Nochrim are not Metamei through Tum'as Ohel, as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai states in Yevamos (61a). Rebbi Shimon derives from the verses that only the grave of one who is called "Adam" is Metamei b'Ohel, excluding the graves of Nochrim who are not called "Adam."
Even according to the Rabanan who disagree with Rebbi Shimon and maintain that the grave of a Nochri is Metamei through Tum'as Ohel, this applies only to Nochrim who died after the Torah was given (Nazir 54a). Why should the graves of Adam ha'Rishon and Avraham Avinu be Metamei? (TOSFOS)
(a) TOSFOS answers that Avraham Avinu indeed was called "Adam," as the verse states, "ha'Adam ha'Gadol" (Yehoshua 14:15). Similarly, Adam ha'Rishon, obviously, was called "Adam."
This answer does not resolve the question that Tosfos asks according to the Rabanan, since the Derashah from the verse still does not apply to the time before the Torah was given, and thus the grave of Avraham Avinu still should not be Metamei. Even according to Rebbi Shimon, the Derashah of "Adam" applies only after the Torah was given. Hence, even though Adam ha'Rishon and Avraham Avinu were called "Adam," nevertheless their graves should not be Metamei. (TOSFOS to Yevamos 61a, DH Kivrei)
(See RABEINU CHAIM HA'LEVI (Al ha'Shas), and SIDREI TAHAROS, Ohalos 2b.)
The RAMBAN writes that Rebbi Bena'ah marked the graves of the forefathers out of respect and honor for them, since they fulfilled all of the Torah. The RAN writes that since they fulfilled all of the Torah, they had the status of Yisrael, and therefore their graves are treated like graves of Yisrael. See also RITVA here.
(b) TOSFOS in Nidah (70b) (and in Nazir 54a, according to the Girsa of RAV BETZALEL RENSBURG; see also TASHBATZ 3:323) gives a different explanation for the Gemara in Nazir, according to which everyone agrees that before the Torah was given the graves of Nochrim were Metamei with Tum'as Ohel, since there was no distinction between a Jew and a Nochri before the Torah was given.
(c) The NIMUKEI YOSEF explains that the purpose for marking the graves of the forefathers was not to prevent Kohanim and Taharos from becoming Tamei with Tum'as Ohel. Rather, it was to prevent them from becoming Tamei with Tum'as Maga by walking on and touching the earth in which the bodies were buried.
The intention of the Nimukei Yosef is not clear. As the VILNA GA'ON (in Ohalos) explains, earth cannot be Metamei with Tum'as Maga (see AYELES HA'SHACHAR here). It seems that the Nimukei Yosef's intention is as the Vilna Ga'on explains in another context (ADERES ELIYAHU, Parshas Chukas). The Vilna Ga'on explains that even if the grave of a Nochri is not Metamei b'Ohel, it is Metamei b'Maga not only if one touches it directly, but even if one merely touches the gravestone or any object that rests directly above the Mes. The reason for this is as follows.
A Halachah in the laws of Tum'as Ohel states that if an object comes within less than a Tefach above the Mes, the Tum'ah of the Mes penetrates the object and goes out the other side (this is called "Tum'ah Retzutzah," or "Kever Sasum"). The Vilna Ga'on rules that touching the object through which the Tum'ah is penetrating is the same as touching the source of the Tum'ah (the Mes) itself. Therefore, walking over (and touching) the grave of a Nochri is like touching the Mes itself (unless, of course, there is a Tefach of space between the top of the Mes and the roof of the coffin or object above the Mes). (According to the Nimukei Yosef's answer, it must be that the graves in Me'aras ha'Machpelah were constructed as structures which would constitute a "Kever Sasum.")
(d) The TESHUVOS BATEI KEHUNAH suggests that even though their graves were not actually Metamei, the people were particularly stringent with regard to Taharos, as we find that the Rabanan instituted a number of enactments to safeguard the Taharah of Taharos (see Chagigah 19b). (The Teshuvos Batei Kehunah concludes that this explanation is not correct.)
(e) RAV YAKOV EMDEN and the RASHASH in Bava Metzia (85b) give an entirely different explanation for why Rebbi Bena'ah was marking the graves of Adam ha'Rishon and Avraham Avinu. He was marking their graves not because of a concern for Tum'as Mes, but so that people would know where the Tzadikim were buried so that they could go to their graves and pray to Hash-m there in the merit of the Tzadikim.
2) AGADAH: THE REWARD FOR THOSE WHO HELP TZADIKIM
QUESTION: The Gemara relates that Rebbi Bena'ah used to demarcate the areas of graves (see previous Insight). The Gemara describes what Rebbi Bena'ah saw when he entered the burial cave of Avraham Avinu and that of Adam ha'Rishon. He found Eliezer, the servant of Avraham Avinu, standing at the entrance. When he entered the cave itself, he saw Sarah "checking Avraham's head."
What does this mean?
ANSWER: The MESHECH CHOCHMAH (Bereishis 21:12; see also RAV YAKOV EMDEN in Chidushei ha'Ya'avetz ha'Aroch) writes that the Avos developed their unique spiritual personalities and characters over many years. Since Avraham Avinu was born into a family of idolaters, it took a number of years until he began to serve Hash-m, and thus there was a certain degree of imperfection in his character. The role of Sarah, and of the other Imahos, was to refine the Midos that the Avos developed and imbue them in the next generation, so that those Midos would be passed to the children that the Avos would bear and the imperfections would be left behind. That is why Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak while Hagar gave birth to Yishmael; Sarah took the perfected Midos, while Hagar took the imperfections.
This is why Hash-m told Avraham Avinu to follow the words of Sarah (Bereishis 21:12). The Midrash says that she had a higher level of Ru'ach ha'Kodesh with regard to raising children.
When the Gemara says that Rebbi Bena'ah saw "Sarah checking the head" of Avraham Avinu, it means that she was removing from his head, so to speak, the elements of the various philosophies that Avraham Avinu had learned throughout his life; she was picking out the pure elements and separating them from the others. This alludes to what she did while she was alive by cultivating Avraham's Midos while removing the imperfections. Rav Yakov Emden adds that "his head" refers to the youth of Avraham Avinu ("his head" in the sense of "Rosh," beginning), when he still had not yet perfected his worldview and philosophy, and Sarah was removing those philosophies of his youth.
Based on this explanation, the Gemara may be teaching that even the greatest Tzadik grows only with the help of others, particularly with the help of his wife. Avraham Avinu could not have developed his teachings and passed them on to ensuing generations if not for his wife, Sarah. Similarly, Rebbi Bena'ah saw Eliezer guarding the burial cave of Avraham Avinu, an allusion to his life accomplishment of protecting Avraham Avinu (see Bereishis 14:14 and Nedarim 32a) and serving as his link to the outside world ("Doleh u'Mashkeh mi'Toraso Shel Rabo l'Acherim"; Yoma 28b). As a result of Eliezer's help, the teachings of Avraham Avinu were spread throughout the world.
One of the lessons of this Gemara is that although not everyone is destined for greatness like Avraham Avinu, nevertheless one's accomplishments in this world are not considered less important. If one's actions help another person develop himself and reach his potential in Avodas Hash-m, then he attains to a certain degree the same level of that person in Olam ha'Ba, just as Sarah and Eliezer share the Me'arah of Avraham Avinu.
3) AGADAH: LIKE A MONKEY BEFORE MAN
QUESTION: The Gemara says that a person compared to Sarah is like a monkey compared to a man. The Gemara makes the same comparison between Sarah and Chavah, and between Chavah and Adam ha'Rishon. The Gemara concludes that Adam ha'Rishon before the Shechinah is like a monkey before a person.
How can the Gemara attribute any sort of corporeal appearance to the Shechinah?
(a) A monkey does not initiate thoughtful actions on its own. Instead, when it sees a person acting in a certain way, it is able to imitate the person. The Gemara, through the analogy of a monkey, is teaching that any Midah Tovah that a person has is present only because of what the earlier generations instilled in him. Any Tzadik, when compared to Sarah, is like a monkey compared to a person, in the sense that his actions are more of a reflection of what was instilled in him (by Sarah) then something he achieved on his own initiative. Sarah had to work hard to instill these Midos into her offspring.
Adam ha'Rishon, too, learned his Midos from Hash-m (see Sotah 14a). Adam ha'Rishon learned how to conduct himself by seeing the ways of the Shechinah.
(b) A monkey does not know why its trainer does certain things. Its trainer might appear to be causing it distress, such as by withholding food or by frightening it, but in truth its trainer has a goal and a purpose for training the monkey and helping it develop. The monkey, though, has no idea why the master does what he does. (See "Second Focus," page 202, "Sacred Monkeys.")
Sarah was able to perceive much more of Hash-m's master plan than other people are able to perceive. Adam ha'Rishon, who recognized much more of Hash-m's master plan than any other person, was still like a monkey when compared to the Shechinah, in that no one can fully comprehend the intentions of Hash-m.
(c) The letter "Kuf" (from which the word "Kof," monkey, is derived) represents a distortion of the will of Hash-m, which results from arrogance. The Gemara in Shabbos (104a) explains that the letters "Heh" and "Vav" represent the Name of Hash-m (see also Menachos 29a, where the Gemara says that Hash-m created this world with the letter "Heh," meaning that the "Heh" represents what is revealed by Hash-m to the people in this world). The letter "Kuf" is a "Heh" with an elongated leg. This represents the arrogant person, about which the Gemara in Sanhedrin (29a) says "Kol ha'Mosif Gore'a" -- when a person is arrogant and adds to his self-image, he actually detracts from his own worth. Instead of being a better "Heh," the "Kuf" is distorted. It becomes a distorted and laughable imitation of the "Heh," just like a monkey is a distorted and laughable imitation of a human being.
Adam ha'Rishon was created with Tzelem Elokim, which means that he was given the ability to internalize all of the Midos that Hash-m wants a person to have. However, his arrogance (manifested in his desire to be on an equal stature with Hash-m) caused a distortion of his Tzelem Elokim, as the Gemara in Chagigah (12a) says: after Adam ha'Rishon sinned, Hash-m decreased his size. This decrease in size was a manifestation of "Kol ha'Mosif Gore'a"; as a result of his attempt to add to his self-image, he was actually decreased in stature.
The Gemara here teaches that any person compared with Sarah is like a monkey compared with a person, because a person's arrogance distorts his true worth, like a monkey is a distorted imitation of a human being. Even Adam ha'Rishon -- who was the quintessential Tzelem Elokim -- compared with the Shechinah which he was supposed to imitate, was like a monkey compared to a person because he distorted his Tzelem Elokim through arrogance.