Avraham Purchases a Gravesite and We Mourn

I do not know enough about real estate practices in ancient Israel to know what is distinctive about the transaction in which Avraham buys a burial plot for Sarah (Gen. 23).  The transaction must have distinctive features, or it would have felt boring to those ancient Israelites who first heard the story.   I do not know enough, but perhaps we can learn something from a close reading.

Avraham begins the conversation by declaring his status.  He is “Ger VeToshav,” a stranger and a resident.  The two descriptions pull in opposite directions.  “Ger” means a stranger, a passer-through, a person far from his family of origin.  “Toshav means a settler, a resident, a person who belongs here. The two terms make a kind of paradox, but one which we still use in law today.  I had the status myself, 42 years ago, when I was a “landed immigrant,” a “resident alien” in Canada.  I was not a citizen, but I had permission to live in Canada.

Avraham then requests, “give me a grave holding.”

What does his status have to do with the real estate negotiation?

A modern commentator suggests that, when a state offers an immigrant the status of “resident alien,” it owes some level of protection to the immigrant – protection up to and including the last item, ownership of a burial plot.  If so, “give me” means literally “give,” without payment.

At the other extreme, and, I think, more likely, “resident aliens” do not have the right to purchase real estate in the Hittite kingdom.  Avraham is asking for permission to purchase a family cemetery even though he is only a resident alien.  In this reading, “give” means, permit me to buy.  In my first job, helping in Mr. Fenster’s appetizing store under the elevated train station in the Bronx, customers would say, “Give me half a quarter of Novy.”  They did not expect a gift from Mr. Fenster.  They knew they would have to pay.

The Hittites answer Avraham: “Hear us. You are a prince of God among us. Choose the best gravesite to bury your dead.   Not one of us without hold gravesite from you. Bury your dead.”

Avraham bows to them.  This answer represents a partial concession to him, and he bows, as Rav Saadia explains, in gratitude.  As a prince of God, or maybe, “of God” is just an intensifier, as a powerful prince, Avraham can use a burial plot. But it is not a sufficient concession.  The Hittites have offered a grave, not a grave holding.  The grave belongs to any one of the Hittites.  Perhaps even after the burial, it might remain property of the Hittite. They envision having Sarah’s grave in the family cemetery of a Hittite family.  Avraham will not own a family cemetery; perhaps not even the grave.

So after bowing in gratitude, Avraham continues: “if you want to allow me to bury my dead, hear me, entreat Ephron ben Tsohar, that he should give me the double cave at the edge of his field.”  And Avraham clears up the ambiguity of “give”: “I will pay full price for the grave holding.”  Avraham wants to own the cemetery.

The Hittites do not have to play go-between for Ephron.  Ephron sits right there among them.  Ephron responds on his own behalf: “No, my master, hear me.”

Everyone in this story says “hear me.” Apparently they have trouble with communication.

Ephron continues: “I have already given you the whole field.” That is the past tense in place of the future: “Consider it as if I have already given the field.  It is a done deal.  Now we are just settling the details of how it happens.”

Ephron offers, not the cave at the edge of his field, but the whole field.  If Avraham wants to own the gravesite, Avraham will have to pay for the whole field.

Incidentally, I have no idea what “Zohar” means, but I can see the etymology of “Ephron”:  “Afar” means dust or dirt.  Ephron is a real estate man.

Again Avraham bows in gratitude. Ephron has made a concession: he will sell to Avraham; a necessary, but not sufficient, concession.  They have not agreed to a price.  Avraham says: “If you would only hear me; I have already given the price.” Again past tense in place of future. “Take the money from me, and I will bury my dead.”

Ephron replies: “My master, hear me. A field of 400 silver pieces, what is that between people such as us? So go bury your dead.”

We all know what to expect next.  Let the haggling begin: “Oh, your beautiful field is worth far more than 400 silver pieces, but I man such as I can scrape together only 200.  Perhaps in your generosity and in your affection for me, you will accept that modest payment.”

But that does not happen.  Ephron must feel astonished when Avraham agrees to the first price mentioned, and weighs out the silver, high enough qualify to serve as currency, acceptable by a merchant.  The passage ends with the words, “acceptable by a merchant.”

So it happens that Avraham, an immigrant in the land of the Hittites, purchases the double cave as a gravesite, as a permanent possession in the Promised Land.  The rest of Canaan will be conquered in warfare, but the field in Hevron belongs to Avraham by purchase.

Ever since then, our many enemies contest our right to the land of Israel, but none contest our right to Hevron – well, except the Arabs, who also claim descent from Avraham.

What lesson does this story have for us today in America? What current value do we see in the story?

Throughout Jewish history, in one political system after another, we have had the status of resident alien.  We have, at best, had permission to dwell, but were not often recognized as belonging.

America is different. We are, most of us here, actual citizens in America, with the right to vote.  Tuesday is Election Day. Please vote.  I won’t tell you which candidates to vote for, or which propositions, but please vote.

The incident that happened at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh last Shabbat fits into the arc of American history.   An angry individual with military grade weapons walked into Tree of Life and murdered worshippers, as angry individuals with military grade weapons have walked into various soft target institutions around America every few months for many years.  It happened in a public elementary school in Connecticut, and a high school in Florida, and an Amish school, and a night club, and a Baptist Church, and Sikh Temple, and a movie theatre and a military base, and a few post offices, and a grocery store, and an insurance company, and a hotel room overlooking a country music concert.  So why shouldn’t we expect it to happen at one of our houses of prayer; we are part of America, after all.

But we are also “Ger VeToshav” in America; we fit into the arc of Jewish History, which does not end in America.  Synagogues have been targets of hate based attacks for centuries; so why should we be surprised when one of our synagogues is the target of a hate based attack here in America?

So what can we do, as Americans and as Jews, in response to this attack?

We can harden the targets, to some extent, as, unfortunately, Jews in Europe have had to make synagogues hard targets for decades, and in Israel, have had to make everything a hard target.

We can pray for the victims, the wounded, the courageous police offers who came to our aid, and who are now hospitalized with gunshot wounds.  We can pray, but that is not enough.  A politician said that we should pray, to which my colleague, Rabbi Jay Michaelson replied, “That’s what the people at Tree of Life were trying to do when they were gunned down.”

We can contribute to worthy causes, not because that will make us safer, but because that is what Jews do in time of tragedy.  How about contributing to HIAS, the organization that so infuriated the gunman in Pittsburgh? HIAS was founded decades ago to help refugees “because they were Jews” and now continues to help refugees “because we are Jews.”

We can redouble our efforts to live as Jews, because we are part of the long arc of Jewish history.

When hate crimes strike our neighbors – when it is their turn to suffer from America’s epidemic of violent terrorism – we can stand with the victims and offer our support.  As it comforted us when Christian and Muslim and Sikh people expressed sympathy and consolation this week, we can offer support and comfort to them when they are in need.  I was comforted when a colleague at the University stopped me, one morning this week, and said, “This gentile wants to express his sorrow and sympathy.”

We can offer sympathy and support to other groups, as we are part of the arc of American history.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.