Hayei Sarah: The Covenant for Life

In a discussion of who has the right to influence Jewish destiny in the land of Israel, Rabbi Herschel Schachter writes that such an individual must essentially obtain of three qualities: he must circumcise his sons as an expression of his commitment to all that the covenant entails,[1] he must reside in the land of Israel with the understanding that the land is divinely promised to the Jewish people, and he must be married to a Jewess.  The significance of these three attributes, though not readily apparent at first blush, can be appreciated in light of the two acts that culminated the public life of Abraham, founder of the covenant of circumcision: (1) acquiring a burial place for his wife; (2) acquiring a wife for his son.

Now, while the first act of purchasing a burial plot for his recently deceased wife may seem merely utilitarian, the protracted negotiations between Abraham and the local Canaanites leave little doubt that something far more profound motivated the patriarch.  The narrative begins with Abraham entreating the locals to provide him with a burial plot (23:4), to which they immediately acquiesce in the most gracious of terms: “in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead” (23:6).  Abraham then requests to purchase the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (23:8-9).  Ephron, for his part, responds in the same gracious tones as his fellow Hittites, offering Abraham the cave free of charge (23:11).

Had Abraham’s goal been purely utilitarian, he should have accepted the offer forthwith and proceeded to bury his wife.  Instead, he implores the Hittite to sell him the property, and, upon hearing the exorbitant suggested price, weighs out the requisite sum without ado.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that what motivated Abraham was the need to make clear that he and his family were different and distinct from the local populace – for a burial ground speaks volumes about identity and allegiance.[2]  Furthermore, notes Rabbi Soloveitchik, a burial plot is unlike any other land purchase, for with the interment of a loved one the land is now emotionally charged – it is an “ahuzah,” an eternal inheritance to be passed from generation to generation.

Having acquired a burial place for his wife in an act imbued with the importance of remaining distinct from the people of the land of Canaan while at the same time remaining bound to the land of Canaan, Abraham proceeded to acquire a wife for his son, in an act colored in those same tones.  Here, Abraham instructs his servant Eliezer to take a wife not from the local population but to bring one back from the people of Abraham’s old country of Ur (Gen. 24:3-4).  Rabbi Hirsch (24:3) explains that the need to find a wife in Ur as opposed to Canaan was not because the people there were any more moral than those in Canaan, but rather because doing so would insure that Isaac’s new family would remain, without the influence of a local extended family, distinct in the land.

The task of finding a wife, it must be understood, was critical to the continuation of the covenant, as Abraham made his servant solemnly swear by taking hold of his “thigh” – a reference, the Midrash teaches, to the covenant of circumcision (Ber. R. 59:8).  Interestingly, the Torah records only one other instance of an oath being made by taking hold of the “thigh”: when Jacob made Joseph swear he would bury him in the ancestral cave in Machpelah (Genesis 47:29; 49:29-30).  These two singular instances of swearing by the sign of the covenant clearly emphasize the importance of the two issues – wife and land – to the continuation of the covenant.[3]

And well they should, because both are actually part and parcel of the covenant itself:

And when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ And Abram fell on his face; and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. (Genesis 17:1-11).

So the covenant, symbolized in the flesh by way of circumcision, inheres of three fundamental elements: the covenant itself, people and land.

The content of the covenant, explains Rabbi David Kimchi, “is that they will be unto me a people and I will be unto them a God, and they will do My commandments that I will command them and I will bless them” (17:11).  The commandments of the covenant, then, afford divine passage to a blessed life.

The first aspect of the blessing is that there be a people to carry out the covenant: “And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee” (17:6).  The covenant is not simply a wondrous set of ideas to be preserved in a holy book, but a wondrous way of life to be lived by a holy people.  For only by a people living the covenant can its beauty and truth serve to inspire and influence new generations.  Perhaps this is why the sign of the covenant is made specifically in the place where new life is generated.

The second aspect of the blessing is that the people have a land to fulfill the covenant: “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (17:8).  A people performing the covenant without a land is not a nation but merely a “religion”, and the covenant is not about a religion of God but about a nation of God.  For only a nation – living every moment of life by the light of the covenant – can serve as a “light unto the nations.”

This then explains why one must obtain of three qualities to assume an influential role within the nation in its land.  One must circumcise his sons, for circumcision is the sign of allegiance to the demands of the covenant.  One must be married to a Jewess, for only thus can one bring to fruition the covenantal blessing of a people.  And one must live in the land in order to take part in the covenant as a nation.

And when we strive to live the three elements of the covenant: circumcision, people and land, God, in perfect chiastic form, blesses us with land, people and circumcision:

And the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and He will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers.  And the Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. (Deuteronomy 30:5-6).


[1] That the individual himself must be circumcised goes without saying since the text of the covenant itself states that one is cut-off from the people if he does not circumcise: “And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant” (17:14).

[2] R. Soloveitchik brings De Gaulle’s indignation at hearing that Rothschild’s grave was to be moved to the land of Israel as proof (Out of the Whirlwind, p.38).  Indeed, it could very well be that Ephron the Hittite understood Abraham’s distancing himself from the locals and consequently placed his exorbitant price tag.

[3] It is interesting to note the parallels between the two oaths.  Both oaths are made by a patriarch resolved to promulgate the covenant in the face on an individual who, to a certain extent, is assimilated.  Eliezer was a local and, though a true servant of Abraham, needed to be adjured to take a woman who will remain distinct from the locals.  Joseph, though clearly loyal to the covenant, was assimilated in Egyptian society.  And if De Gaulle was indignant at the Rothschild’s moving their father’s grave to Israel, surely Joseph could expect nothing less than indignation from Pharaoh.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at