David Walk

A Piece of the Land

Zionism is about a love affair. The Jewish people love the Land and we firmly believe that the Land loves us. That relationship probably began in this week’s Torah reading, which begins with the tragic death of Sarah Imeinu, but quickly moves to the long negotiation for the purchase of the proper burial site for Avraham’s beloved and our Matriarch. Why so much space dedicated to this real estate deal? Or as Rabbi Elazar in Midrash Rabbah put it, ‘How many inkwells have been emptied, how many quills have been broken in order to write’ all these details? Something crucial must be happening.

The simplest approach to this issue is also the most ironic: Rabbi Yudan bar Simon said: This is one of three places that the nations of the world cannot deride Israel and say: ‘These are stolen property in your hands,’ and they are: The Cave of Machpelah, the Temple Mount, and Joseph’s tomb (Breishit Raba 79:7). We interpret those texts (here, Breishit 33:19, and Divrei Hayomim I 21:25) which record our sainted ancestors buying those three locations to clearly establish our rights to these locations. The sad reality? These three holy sites are probably the most contentious locations on the planet. Oh, the irony!

Avraham Avinu has just lost his life’s love, and his partner in the greatest endeavor of human history, the founding of ethical monotheism. He’s sad, but not broken. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out: Abraham had every reason to sit and grieve. Yet he did not.

He briefly grieved; then arose to assure the future of the Jewish people. First, he bought our first foothold in the Land, and then arranged for the marriage of Yitzchak. Again, it was Rav
Sacks who observed:

How did Abraham overcome the trauma and the grief?…I learned the answer from the people who became my mentors in moral courage, namely the Holocaust survivors I had the privilege to know…Most of them did not talk about the past, even to their marriage partners, even to their children…They looked forward, not back. First they built a future. Only then – sometimes forty or fifty years later – did they speak about the past. That was when they told their story, first to their families, then to the world. First you have to build a future. Only then can you mourn the past.

We must absorb that lesson.

However, I firmly believe that the critical term for understanding what is happening at this critical juncture in the story of our people is VAYAKAM, ‘and he arose’. This verb begins four of the twenty verses in chapter 23 of Breishit. It is applied twice to Avraham Avinu and twice to the plot of land to be purchased. Why twice each?

Both subjects begin in the negative column. They are both operating MI’MA’AMAKIM, out of the depths. The first VAYAKAM for Avraham is to arise from his mourning and depression over his monumental loss. For the plot of land, described as ‘the field and the cave which was in it, and all the trees that were in the field and in all its borders round about’ (Breishit 23:17), the first step was to leave the impurity (TUMA’A) of the ownership of idolaters. 

When arising from the depths, Avraham and then the field have to achieve a new, exalted status. For Avraham, he approaches the community of Chevron as an ADON (lord, noble) and a NASI (prince, appointed one) of God in their midst (verse 4). For the property, it becomes an eternal holy site of pilgrimage. It contains the world’s oldest edifice still in use. 

So, from out of the depths both the Patriarch and the field/cave achieve exalted status. How does this happen? What is the process or method for rising out of the ashes, for achieving elevated status? I believe that the answer to that question is found in the Book of Yeshayahu: The NEDIV (noble or generous personality) conceives noble deeds; in noble deeds, one will arise (YAKUM, 32:8). Nobility, generosity, philanthropic endeavors allows for one to rise to ever greater heights.

Altruism is the answer. People and objects can gain elevated, exalted status through caring for the other. That’s true for nobility and greatness. We see this in the historic symbiotic relationship between ERETZ YISRAEL and AM YISRAEL. 

The Jews pine for the Land from afar. As Rav Yehudah HaLevi said, ‘My heart is in the East; even though I am at the uttermost West.’ He made that declaration while in Spain before people knew you could go further west, to America. And the Land reciprocates. Eretz Yisrael is only fertile and productive when the Jews control the Land. There are so many accounts of the desolation here when it was ruled by Arabs, Crusaders and Turks. But because we have come home, Eretz Yisrael is again the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.

The Netivot Shalom expresses a similar idea, but from a slightly different angle. The Slonimer Rebbe wrote:

He also wanted to fulfill the verse ‘one who spurns gifts will live long (Mishlei 15:27, Malbim-doesn’t want to benefit from the possessions of others, only wants to benefit from the fruits of his own labor). This is what the Sages meant when they said that the AVOT kept the whole Torah before it was given (Yuma 28b). They endeavored to always ‘Do what is upright in the eyes of the Eternal’ (Devarim 6:18). Avraham was able to do this through SHIKUL HADA’AT, weighing ideas.

Avraham Avinu intuited these great truths, the power of altruism and the necessity of his descendants having a Land of their own, through his own SHIKUL HADAT (giving proper weight to different ideas). We don’t have to rely on our own intelligence; we have our long tradition and the clear lessons of history to teach us the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people. We have no excuse for not cherishing this precious gift which we inherited from our ancestors.

Again, our beloved homeland is being threatened. We pray to God for a speedy, successful conclusion to the terrible war being waged at this time. We also pray that our love for the Land will only grow, and be rewarded with not only victory in the present conflict but with the complete Redemption, speedily in our days.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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