Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“My lord hearken to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me.”   (Genesis 23:14)

A significant part of this Torah portion deals with Abraham’s purchase of the Hebron grave-site from the Hittites in order to bury Sarah, his beloved wife. In painstaking detail, the text describes how the patriarch requests to buy the grave, how the Hittites wish him to take it for free, and – when Efron the Hittite finally agrees to make it a sale – he charges Abraham the inflated and outlandish sum of four hundred silver shekels. The Midrash seems perplexed: why expend so much ink and parchment – the entire chapter 23 of the book of Genesis – over a Middle-Eastern souk sale? Moreover, what is the significance in the fact that the very first parcel of land in Israel acquired by a Jew happens to be a grave-site? And finally, how can we explain the irony of the present day Israeli-Palestinian struggle over grave-sites – the Ma’arat HaMakhpela in Hebron where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried and Joseph’s  grave-site in Shekhem – which were specifically paid for in the Bible by our patriarchs?

In order to understand our biblical portion, it is important to remember that throughout the ancient world – with the single exception of Athens – the only privilege accorded a citizen of any specific country was the ‘right’ of burial, as every individual wanted his body to ultimately merge with the soil of his familial birthplace. Abraham insists that he is a stranger as well as a resident (ger toshav) of Het; he lives among, but is not one of, the Hittites. Abraham is a proud Hebrew; he refuses the ‘right’ of burial and demands to pay – even if the price is exorbitant – for the establishment of a separate Hebrew cemetery. Sarah’s separate grave-site symbolizes her separate and unique identity. Abraham wants to ensure that she dies as a Hebrew and not a Hittite.  In effect, the Hittites are more than willing to give Sarah a free grave, because they want to claim her as a Hittite; Abraham will never allow that!

Interestingly, the Talmud uses the same verb (kikha) to describe Abraham’s purchase of a grave-site and to derive the law that a legal engagement can only take place when the groom gives the bride a ring (or a minimum amount of money) to effectuate the marriage.  Perhaps our tradition is suggesting that marriage requires a husband to take ultimate responsibility for his wife – especially in terms of securing her separate and unique identity – even beyond her life and into her grave.

This parasha reminds me of two poignant stories. First, when I was a very young rabbi, one of the first “emergency’ questions I received was from an older woman leaning on a young Roman Catholic priest for support. She tearfully explained that her husband – who had died just a few hours earlier – was in need of a Jewish burial place. He had converted to Catholicism prior to having married her, and agreed that their children would be raised as Catholics. The Roman Catholic priest was, in fact, their son and she had never met any member of her husband’s Jewish family. Even though they lived as Catholics during thirty-five years of their married life, his final deathbed wish had been to be buried in a Jewish cemetery….

Second, when my good and beloved friend Zalman Bernstein z’l was still living in America and beginning his return to Judaism, he asked me to find him a grave-site in the Mount of Olives cemetery. With the help of the Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Fellowship) of Jerusalem, we set aside a plot. When he inspected it, however, he was most disappointed:

‘You cannot see the Temple Mount,’ he shouted, in his typical fashion. I attempted to explain calmly that after 120 years, he either wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, or he would be able to see everything no matter where his body lay. ‘You don’t understand,’ he countered. ‘I made a mess of my life so far and did not communicate to my children the glories of Judaism. The grave is my future and my eternity. Perhaps, when my children come to visit me there, if they would be able to see the holiest place in the world, the Temple Mount, they will be inspired by the Temple and come to appreciate what I could not adequately communicate to them while I was alive…’

For each individual, their personal grave-site represents the past and the future. Where and how individuals choose to be buried speaks volumes about how they lived their past lives and the values they aspired to. Similarly, for a nation, the grave-sites of its founders and leaders represent the past and reveal the signposts of the highs and lows in the course of the nation’s history. The way a nation regards its grave-sites and respects its history will determine the quality of its future.

Indeed, the nation that chooses to forget its past has abdicated its future, because it has erased the tradition of continuity which it ought have transmitted to the future; the nation that does not properly respect the grave-sites of its founding patriarchs will not have the privilege of hosting the lives of their children and grandchildren. Perhaps this is why the Hebrew word, kever, literally a grave, is likewise used in rabbinical literature for womb. And the Hebrew name Rvkh (Rebecca), the wife of Isaac who took Sarah’s place as the guiding matriarch, is comprised of the same letters as hkvr, the grave and/or the womb, the future which emerges from the past. Is it then any wonder that the first parcel of land in Israel purchased by the first Hebrew was a grave-site, and that the fiercest battles over ownership of the land of Israel surround the graves of our founding fathers and mothers? And perhaps this is why our Sages deduce the proper means for engagement from Abraham’s purchase of a grave-site for Sarah – Jewish familial future must be built upon the life style and values of our departed matriarchs and patriarchs. The grave is also the womb; the past is mother to the future.

Shabbat Shalom 


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