Cleopatra and Rabbi Meir
By Nachum Mohl
Perhaps it may seem strange to come across some of the so called "great figures" of ancient history in the Talmud, but that is what we discover in the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrian. We find recorded a brief conversation between Cleopatra, the famous Queen of Egypt and Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest rabbis of his time.
In this short conversation, Cleopatra says to Rabbi Meir, "I know that there is resurrection of the dead, for it is stated in Palms (72:16) [There shall be an abundance of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon,] and they of the city (Jerusalem) shall flourish like grass of the earth."
"But," she continues, "when the dead are resurrected, will they come back naked or clothed?"
Rabbi Meir answered her: "Learn from the seed of wheat that is buried in the ground with out its covers, yet when it arises, it has many covers. How much more so, the righteous are buried with their garments, for certain they will be resurrected with their garments."
That is the transcript of Cleopatra's meeting with Rabbi Meir. It seems a bit odd when we begin to think about it.
First, why was Cleopatra so concerned with this aspect of the resurrection of the dead? Did she acknowledge resurrection with such certainty that she had to ask a side question?
Secondly, the Talmud preceded this encounter with several arguments to whence is resurrection mentioned in the Torah. Different sages give different sources, but not one mentions this sentence in Psalms, which is not directly called the Torah. Why did she use this sentence instead of the obvious ones that were mentioned by the sages?
Thirdly, the answer that Rabbi Meir gives does not exactly fit snuggly over the question asked. Cleopatra asked about whether the resurrected would be clothed or naked. Rabbi Meir answers with a statement about wheat growing in the ground, as if we are to learn from this, and then he learns that this applies to the righteous.
Lastly, we must ask that the Talmud never puts in just interesting statements to impress us. There must be a teaching from all of this that should be applicable to us. What is it?
To answer those questions let us first digress into a bit of ancient history. Cleopatra was the queen of Egypt. She inherited the throne while only a girl. She was a powerful ruler who dreamed of a world empire. After the death of Caesar, her husband, she became the ruler of Egypt. In addition to this she later became the wife of the famous Mark Anthony. She declared that she was the new Isis, Isis being the most famous goddess of ancient Egypt. Eventually her enemies captured her after the death of Mark Anthony and she committed suicide.
In addition we know that when the kings of Egypt died, they were buried not only with all of their wealth, but with their servants. The great pyramids were found to be the burial chambers of the great rulers of Egypt. In them were found much wealth, provisions and remains of servants who were buried with the rulers to provide the dead ruler his due aid in the hereafter.
We see from this that the ancients did possess a belief in the concept of the next world. However, it does not seem that it was exactly the same as our Jewish belief, as we shall soon see. Therefore she was not concerned with the concept of resurrection, but rather, what form would the resurrection take.
Being the ruler of Egypt, one of the great civilizations of that time, she was concerned with her vanities and ego. She quotes the text referring to the re-building of Jerusalem, expecting that also Alexandria, the great city would be rebuilt, and she would again reign. But as vanities would have it, she was worried that perhaps she would return to life naked, quite a disappointing thing for a women as great as Cleopatra.
Yet her vision or understanding of the resurrection was quite wrong in terms of our Jewish understanding. We do not believe that the purpose of the resurrection is to continue our mundane lives as we are experiencing them now, but rather, to reach a greater understanding of the One True G-d, reach a greater closeness to G-d, and not to continue in a purely materialistic existence.
However, to answer Cleopatra in this fashion would neither be proper nor prudent. Yet to give Cleopatra the answer she desired to hear would not be telling the truth. So Rabbi Meir gave her the answer in a riddle, if she understood properly, good, if not, let her learn.
Wheat is an interesting specie to make a simile. Why not use a pit from a peach or a seed from an apple? The wheat seed is the food. It can be used for planting or eating, but not both. If it is consumed for the purpose of sustenance, it can not be used to bring other wheat grains in the world. Life also, - if life is used only for the physical, how can one expect that it will bring forward any spiritual fruits? Rabbi Meir alluded to Cleopatra that an emphasis on physical enjoyments in in this world would not provide life in the next world.
In addition, he relates only to the righteous being resurrected, not to the rest of mankind. In Jewish burials, the deceased is buried in a shroud. What is he talking about that the righteous will return with garments?
Yet we know that garments are those coverings that permit the body to engage in certain occupations. A soldier has his uniform, a policeman, a fireman, etc, all wear garment tailored to aid them in carrying out their tasks. The righteous will have garments that will enable them to fulfil their tasks in their new surroundings of the world of the resurrected. Their garments will aid them in perceiving the G-dliness that will abound in the world of the resurrected.
However, not all will partake of this future world. Rabbi Meir alluded to Cleopatra this concept by remarking that the righteous will return with garments. Based on Cleopatra's life style, it is obvious that she did not truly understand the nuances of Rabbi Meir's answer.
The message for us from this passage in the Talmud is clear: let there be no mistake. Resurrection is a fundamentel belief in Judaism, but not every one will be participants.
from the July 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine