Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Ironically, Parshat Chayei Sara doesn’t deal with the life of our matriarch, Sarah. Rather, it discusses her death and burial. Sarah passed away at the age of one hundred and twenty-seven – a relatively short life for her time (Avraham lived for 175 years and Yitzhak lived for 180 years).
According to rabbinic tradition, Sarah’s death was linked to a misunderstanding – she believed that her son Yitzhak was sacrificed and killed on Mount Moriah during the events of the Akeda, which were related in the previous parsha. Avraham wanted to bury Sarah, and to do so, he needed a burial cave. As a newcomer to the Land of Israel, and considering that at the time, people buried their deceased ancestors in ancestral burial plots, he was understandably at a loss when it came to finding a place to bury his wife.
The Torah dedicates a long chapter to describing the purchase of Me’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs). A story that could have been summarized in one verse became a detailed twenty-verse account of the exasperating negotiations with Efron, the cave’s owner. Negotiations ended with the payment of the exorbitant sum of four hundred shekels for a plot of land with negligible real-estate value, in what amounted to a transaction that was economically questionable.
But why did God have to tell us all of this?
Traditional commentary offers two different directions we can take to understand the deeper meaning of this story. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that the intent of the detailed description was to show Avraham how God had kept his promise to him. The land had been promised, and this promise was starting to materialize.
The Midrash views these events in the opposite light. Moshe Rabbeinu was sent to Pharaoh with a message: “Release the People of Israel from Egypt”. Pharaoh banishes Moshe and Aharon in disgrace and treats the People of Israel even more harshly: from that point on, they would have to gather their own straw to make their bricks, and they would still be required to produce at the same set daily quota. Naturally, they can’t satisfy this excessive demand and they are consequently beaten by the Egyptian foremen. Faced with this dire situation, Moshe turns to God and says to Him: “O Lord, why have you harmed this people? Why have you sent me?!” (Shemot / Exodus 5:22).
Moshe is saying that he had come to speak to Pharaoh, but he hadn’t managed to free the Israelites, and their situation had even been exacerbated! According to the Midrash, God answers Moshe with the following sentence: “חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין” (“Woe! For those who are lost and are not found!). In other words, “Woe to the role models of the past who can no longer be found. You, Moshe, are getting worked up because of what Pharaoh said, but I remember the patriarch Avraham. I promised him the entire land, but when his wife passed away, he didn’t even own a plot of land to bury her in, and nevertheless, he did not criticize me or voice any complaints”.
Unlike Ibn Ezra, who viewed the story of the purchase of the cave as a testimony to the fulfillment of a promise, the Midrash considers this incident evidence of the fact that the promise had not been fulfilled, and that this was a testament to Avraham’s greatness, for not having complained.
We seemingly have two different worldviews regarding the rebuilding of the Land of Israel and the rebirth of the Jewish People, both now and in ancient times. Some believe that the divine promise concerning the bequest of the Land of Israel as an inheritance exempts them from making any human or natural efforts, since God had made a promise, which He will surely keep – even if we do nothing to the effect.
Ibn Ezra responds to this claim by saying that God keeps His promises through the physical efforts we make. How were God’s promises fulfilled? Through Avraham’s colossal efforts. During the painful times that followed the death of Avraham’s beloved wife, he understood that he needed to advance to the next stage on the way to inheriting the land, and mindful of his genuine need to find a burial plot, he needed to do something practical to acquire an inheritance in the land. “Bit by bit, acre by acre”. The Divine promise is still relevant, but my job is make a physical effort for it to be fulfilled.
Conversely, the Midrash echoes the sentiments of many who believe that God will handle everything from up above. Many Jews held this view during our two-thousand year exile, until the Zionist movement was reawakened.
Yet even according to the Midrash, Avraham did not miss this opportunity. He may have thought that God would indeed hand the land to him on a silver platter, without any effort on his part, but he understood that this was not how God operates, and he didn’t rest on his laurels. He didn’t complain or criticize God. He understood that even if he wasn’t required to complete the task, he wasn’t free to avoid it, either.
It seems that the constant tension between vision and the ability to implement it is at the heart of the story of the purchase of Me’arat Hamachpelah. It is also at the heart of what the Jewish people have been accomplishing throughout the generations.