Parashat Chayei Sarah – You can’t build a future without a past

Are historical facts meaningless? Doesn’t historical truth have any value? Parashat Chayei Sarah has a straightforward bottom line: you can’t build a future without a past.

by Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt, Senior Faculty
Yeshivat Hesder Beren-Machanaim

During an international, interfaith conference in the United States one summer, I participated in a lecture by a professor who specializes on religious conflicts. In his talk on religious conflicts over holy places, he told us about a long and bloody conflict between two tribes of different religions over a temple in South America. Each tribe claimed to be the original owners of the holy site. Every few years, one of the tribes would take over the temple, claim ownership of it, and kill lots of people. This vicious cycle went on and on. The professor shared the following conclusion: each side had its own narrative, so the historical question of “who was here first” is irrelevant, as it leads to destruction and murder. Instead, to solve the religious wars of our time, we should ask what can be done now, not who was here first.

This argument seems rather logical. It portrays disputes over holy sites as foolish squabbles between schoolchildren arguing over who came first, and who’s stronger. This approach contrasts with the idea of having an adult conversation as people who recognize reality and think productively about what can be done from this point forward.  I left the lecture hall with quite a bit of food for thought, though I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my mind and my heart saw things differently. Are historical facts truly meaningless? Doesn’t historical truth have any value? Is the question of a person’s or nation’s ownership of a country and a place truly childish?

In Parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of Abraham, our forefather, who wanted to purchase the cave of the machpelah to use as a burial plot. The people of Chet welcomed Abraham and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. They told him that he was welcome to bury Sarah in their graveyard, and that he didn’t even have to pay for the plot or the field itself. Yet Abraham refused the offer, insisting on owning a separate lot of land, and paying the full price for it.

It would seem that the response of the people of Chet was based on their goodwill, and on their desire to give things to others without requiring anything in return, while Abraham insists on making a purchase. Didn’t Abraham trust in the goodwill and honesty of the people of Chet? Was Abraham being petty? Didn’t our forefather Abraham miss the opportunity to establish a good relationship with his neighbors, based on goodwill and mutually contributing to each other’s wellbeing, instead of materialism and purchases made with cold cash?

Modern political philosophers were divided over the question of a private individual’s right to property. One view, held by John Locke, justified the notion of private property, considering it an outcome of a person’s worldly pursuits. An opposing view, championed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, saw private property as the root of mankind’s ills. For Rousseau, property is the very epitome of evil. The most natural state would be peace and benevolence. All world wars began with a person coming along, staking a flag on a particular spot, and claiming it as his own. Ownership, or to use the language of psychology, the ego, is what creates tension between people, and produces anger, enmity and war. If we’d reread the story in this week’s Parasha through Rousseau’s lenses, we’d notice that Rousseau is highly critical of what Abraham did, since by purchasing the cave of the machpelah, he creates enmity, division, and war.

However, while in theory, Rousseau’s ideas sound fantastic, in practice, they have no validity. Nullifying a person’s property is tantamount to nullifying the person himself. Rousseau’s philosophy held up totalitarian regimes in modern Europe. By nullifying a person’s property, we would be nullifying that person’s personality and human endeavors. Before long, we would be depriving people of their property, and eventually, their very lives. Surprisingly, by attaching value to the mundane and to the everyday things we do, such as buying a place of our own and protecting our homes, we engender a respect for human dignity and ensure our preservation.

The stories that involve our forefather Abraham forming the foundations of the Israelite nation seek to foster a different worldview. These are stories centered on “setting boundaries”. Abraham left his home and his native land to set himself apart from others, and create an independent nation in a diffeent land. The Holy One, Blessed Be He promised him land and progeny. These are tools and frameworks. Even Abraham’s purchase of the cave of the machpelah is an attempt to mark territory. The path to instilling the Torah within us begins with derech eretz, common courtesy, which is founded on the ability to preserve and defend the separate existence of an individual and a nation.

The Holy One, Blessed be He married derech eretz with the Ten Commandments, including the prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery. Moral depravity in this world is the outcome of a blurring of the boundaries between man and fellow man, between families, between nations, and between property owned by all of these groups. The Torah’s ethical standpoint starts by proscribing the placement of faith and respect in the human effort to obtain property.

In Rashi’s famous first commentary on the Torah, which explains Rashi’s understanding of why the story of Creation and the book of Genesis precede the text containing the commandments, he discusses the argument that the nations of the world might voice against Israel, claiming that the Israelites had stolen the Land of Canaan and were illegally occupying it. The counterargument, however, is that the entire land and its contents belong to Hashem, and that he is koneh shamayim va’aretz – the purchaser of the heavens and the Earth. When He wills it, he gives of it to others, and when He wills it, He takes it away. Here, too, the question of property and ownership stands at the very foundation of the Israelite concept of ethics, and, Rashi says, this is the justification for the entire book of Genesis.

The drive behind Abraham’s actions was his concept of ethics. Israelite morality begins with respecting the existence and the property of others, and more importantly, the social-cultural domain. In his book, The Midrash of the Engenderments (based on the R. Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook’s treatise, The Perplexed of the Generation, chapter 8), Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkénazi (“Manitou”) explains that nationalism is the source of morality, since it doesn’t attempt to stamp out the differences between peoples. The derech eretz of the Israelites is all about respecting the diversity of human beings, positing that only after we’ve recognized this diversity can we attempt to instill the lessons of our holy Torah. The second stage is, of course, when we correct, clarify, and perform ha’ala’at hanitzotzot (the Kabalistic idea of “raising up the sparks”), but decency and kindness come before the Torah.

Wars waged over holy sites don’t break out because someone insisted on “being there first”, but rather from the fact that people lie to themselves, ignore historical facts, and fail to respect the property and land belonging to others. It is for good reason that the two great religions of the Western world have caused more bloodshed than any other religions: they did so because they tried to blot out history, believing that there was no inherent value in human endeavors that have been developed over the years.

Undoubtedly, becoming preoccupied with historical questions while remaining blind to current realities is ideologically foolish, on both a practical and a religious level. On the practical level, it’s ill-advised because if we want to take our current reality to new horizons, we must first recognize this reality and operate from within. On the religious level, we mustn’t forget that the Holy One, Blessed Be He sets history in motion and He alone knows what the true reasons are behind every occurrence. In any case, divine will is a part of our reality. On the other hand – you can’t build a future without a past. The preservation of the value of every human being and the mutual respect between people and nations have their roots in the smaller questions, ones concerning history and land. That’s because this is what preserves mankind and its endeavors. The question of who was here first is certainly an important question. It’s a critical question, because it helps us ascertain who is acting violently and is robbing others of what is rightfully theirs. The question is related to the issue of property and respecting the status of a person, a nation and a faith. Moreover, it requires us to establish our lives and our values on truth, or, at the very least, to strive to reach the truth.

The Jewish people’s insistence on belonging to the Land of Israel isn’t just for our sake. It’s an important milestone on our path to tikkun olan, to perfecting the world and redeeming it.

Shabbat Shalom 


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