Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Parshat Chayyei Sarah begins with the death and burial of our matriarch, Sarah, who passed away at the age of 127. Abraham, wishing to bury her, needed a burial site. Since he was a newcomer to Canaan and people tended to bury their deceased relatives in family plots, Abraham was going to have a challenging time finding a place to bury his wife.
The Torah dedicates no less than twenty verses to reporting how Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. An episode that could easily have been glossed over becomes a detailed account of the negotiations Abraham conducted with the owners of the cave. Throughout the generations, traditional commentators have proposed two directions for attaining a deeper understanding of this story.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests that the reason for such a detailed account is that God wished to show Abraham how He keeps his promises: the land was promised to him, and the promise is now being kept.
Our Sages, however, see things quite differently. Moses was sent to Pharaoh with a message to deliver: free the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh, however, responded by treating them even more harshly, demanding that they work harder. He then sends away Moses and Aaron in disgrace. Moses turns to God and says to him that since speaking with Pharaoh, conditions have only worsened [Ex. 5:22-23].
According to our Sages, God replied, “Woe regarding those who are gone and are no longer found” [Talmud, Sanhedrin 111a]. God laments the fact that the exemplary characters of the past are long gone, remembering that he had promised Abraham the entire Land of Israel, and that when Abraham couldn’t find a grave for his wife, he didn’t complaint.
We seem to have two differing worldviews on building the Land of Israel and the resurgence of the Nation of Israel, both then and now. Some believe that the Divine promise concerning the inheritance of the land exempts them from making any physical effort to acquire it, since after all, it was promised by God.
In response to this view, Ibn Ezra says that God keeps His promises through our human efforts. Even at Abraham’s most difficult moment – such as when he needed to bury his beloved wife – he understands that he needs to advance another step, and use the opportunity to buy an inheritance in the Land of Israel.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin, however, expresses the view that God will cause things to happen through Divine providence. This has been a perspective shared by many Jews throughout our two-thousand-year exile, mostly unchallenged until the Zionist movement arose.
Yet even the Talmud maintains that Abraham hadn’t missed any opportunities. He may have originally believed that God would serve him the Land of Israel on a silver platter, but when he discovered that this would definitely not be the case, he did not sit idly by. While he did not have any doubts as to God’s intentions, he also understood that he was not exempt from taking action.
The ongoing tension between a vision and the ability to fulfill it is at the very heart of the story of the purchase of the Cave of Machpela. May we be able to discern between the two, and act accordingly.