A Word of Torah: Chayei Sarah

Nothing came easy to our matriarch Sarah, whose death and burial occupy the first part of this week’s reading. We had previously read of her struggle with infertility, her ordeal with lecherous rulers (with Abraham’s acquiescence), and with his uppity concubine; when she’s finally blessed with her own son, her home life is far from idyllic. Now, right after the story of Isaac’s near death, we learn of her passing, which a midrash suggests was brought on by her fear for Isaac’s life. But her troubles aren’t over yet, because Abraham doesn’t have a place to bury her.

The detailed account of the purchase of a burial plot takes up an entire chapter. However, one element is entirely missing from it: the divine promise of the land, which should have obviated Abraham’s need to negotiate and pay for the cave of Machpelah. In real life and similar to how Isaac and Jacob will behave later on, Abraham is not particularly possessive of the land: to put an end to the quarrel with Lot’s shepherds, he cedes the more fertile half of it (chapter 13), and as a reward for his military victory, he only requests the redemption of captives. But while, understandably, Abraham refrains from informing the Hittites with whom he is respectfully negotiating that, sooner or later, his descendants will inherit the land anyway, we, the readers/inheritors might still expect some reassurance in this chapter that someday it will all be ours.

To our great relief, Genesis – unfortunately, in contrast to the rest of the Bible – models co-existence and conflict resolution, with the rare exception, the bloodbath in Shechem (chapter 34) being fiercely and bitterly condemned by Jacob. One wishes, therefore, that the myriads descending on Hebron this weekend in celebration of the renewal of Jewish habitation in Hebron, would bring this message to that small community of belligerent settlers who, with the collusion of the Israeli government, lord over the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of the area.

“The Bible bequeathed to our people, and through it to all humanity… sublime humane values, the value of human brotherhood, the values of justice and righteousness, truth and kindness, the equality of nations and peace that are the essence of prophetic teaching and the morality of Judaism.”

If only these stirring words of David Ben-Gurion (Iyyunim baTanakh [Tel Aviv 1976], p. 221) accurately described the entirety of our tradition, but they certainly apply to the Bible’s account of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah. As for other passages that radiate bloodthirsty intolerance, we have our work cut out for us if we are interested in fulfilling the divine charge (Genesis 18:19): “For I have chosen Abraham so that he will instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the God and do what is right and just – on this basis will God’s promise to Abraham be fulfilled.”

Be blessed with a Shabbat of peace.

By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a founding member of RHR and BOD member

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