The Biblical Text
We say farewell to the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 25:8-9,which describe the moment of death and burial:
“8 And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his people. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah…”
How are we supposed to understand the phrase “he was gathered to his people?” In context, it serves as a transition linking the moment right after death with burial in the cave. What purpose or meaning does this phrase provide that differs from the moment of death and the moment of burial?
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
ויאסף אל עמיו. יש אומרים כי על כבוד הנפש אמר כי בהיותו מתעסק עם הגוף הוא כחלק נפרד. ובהפרד מהגוף יאסף הכבוד אל עמיו ויש אומרים כי זה משפט הלשון והטעם על לכתו בדרך אבותיו כאלו יתחבר אליהם וכן אתה תבא אל אבותיך בשלום
AND WAS GATHERED TO HIS PEOPLE. Some say that this refers to the soul of life (k’vod hanefesh, literally “glory of the living body”) which, even while functioning in the body, is a separate entity. When it separates from the body it returns to its source.
Others say that “and was gathered to his people” is a mere idiom. One who follows in the footsteps of his ancestors is said, as it were, to be joining them. Similarly, “But you shall go to your ancestors in peace” (Genesis 15:15). (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
In his comment on this phrase, Ibn Ezra acts as a curator rather than originator of opinion, and in fact doesn’t seem to prefer one interpretation over the other. Perhaps they work on multiple levels simultaneously.
As Strickman and Silver note on this comment, Ibn Ezra believed that one’s “soul is derived from a universal soul.” When the body-home dies, the soul does not perish, but returns to its “people”, meaning the universal soul that is its true essence. I imagine the soul returning to soul-land after a sojourn among corporeal creatures and exclaiming “my peeps!” with the relief that uniquely comes from finding company that really gets you. But no doubt, it will then prepare for its next adventure abroad.
On the other hand, Ibn Ezra brings another opinion that the phrase has nothing to do with metaphysical speculation but is simply a metaphor for joining the “community” of all who have already died. I’ve heard from other sources that the phrase may allude to one’s bones being added to the family burial cave, a practice that Abraham initiates for his particular family when he first purchases the cave of Machpelah and buries Sarah there.