***This article is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh zt’’l), former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, our beloved teacher, who passed away Saturday 7th November 2020 (Shabbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781). May his memory be and eternal blessing. Wishing Rebbetzin Elaine, Josh, Dina Gila, and all grandchildren, a long and blessed life. המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים ***
As soon as Avraham rises from the presence of Sarah’s body – his beloved wife, comrade, and covenantal partner – for whom he has come to eulogized and bewail, his speech turns to the children of Heth, residents of the hills of Hebron. Avraham, the Mesopotamian from Ur, a Chaldean by birth, seeks to engage in a commercial real estate transaction to buy a burial site where to bury ‘my dead from before me’. Sarah dies at the age of 127, Avraham comes after. It is not immediately explicit what Sarah is doing in Hebron, but why she is buried in Hebron has tremendous significance.
Be’er Sheva was in Philistine territory, 65km southwest of Hebron. Hebron, also known as Kiryat Arba, is located 1020 meters above sea level, at the heart of the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan had been promised by G-d to Avraham. Sarah, his wife, one of the mothers of the Jewish Nation, fatefully dies and is buried in the Promised Land. Avraham knows the degree of responsibility he has ahead of him: the call that led him out of Ur Kasdim in Mesopotamia, leaving his birthplace, his land, and his father’s house to ‘become a great nation’ (Bereshit 12) has been coupled with the promise of the giving of Canaan to his descendants (Bereshit 15), up to this point.
It is in the middle of his grief, that he turns to the Council of the Children of Heth, and engages in the first reported Jewish real-estate transaction ever in the Land of Israel. He prefaces the encounter with the sentence: גר ותושב אנוכי עמכם תנו לי אחזת קבר עמכם ואקברה מתי מלפני. (i.e. I am a stranger and an inhabitant amongst you: give me a possession of a burying-place amongst you, that I may bury my dead from before me).
The tension is certainly palpable in Avraham’s speech. Avraham is asking to purchase a plot of Land, a burial site, currently in the Estate of men belonging to a foreign nation; he asks for a place where he can bury his own family, at the exclusion of everyone else. That plot of land belongs to Ephron whom Avraham could certainly have approach beforehand. After all, the Cave of Machpelah was located at Ephron’s property. But in a tactful act of diplomacy, Avraham instead approaches the City Council, asking for permission to engage in commercial negotiation. Avraham is not buying just a burial plot, the text is clear: he is purchasing a אחזת קבר which he is to pass onto his descendants, loosely translated as a grave-inheritance. Instead of approaching an individual, Avraham submits himself to the decision of Council, before engaging in the transaction.
His choice of words are remarkable. Why does he preface the request by reminding them that he is dualy a foreigner and inhabitant amongst them? What is the relevance of this statement? It is a statement dripping with ontological significance. Rabbi Soloveitchik zl’’v explains:
‘What is our position vis-à-vis modern civilization – with respect to science, to Western culture, to the countries in which we live? The answer is enshrined in these words. Certainly, I am a resident, I am one of you. I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take a full part in your social-economical institutions. But at the same time I am a stranger, and in some aspects, a foreigner. I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am at one with the Creator […] a world populated by characters unknown to you, with a tradition that you do not understand, with spiritual values that seem impractical in your eyes, pragmatic children of Heth […] In these matters I am a stranger in your world, and you are strangers in mine’
Elsewhere, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s famous essay Confrontation published in the 1960s to the Rabbinical Council of America, the Rav writes:
‘In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders. We are rooted in the here and now a reality as inhabitants of our globe, and yet we experience a sense of homelessness and loneliness as if we belonged somewhere else. […] We are indeed involved in the cultural endeavor and yet we are committed to another dimension of experience. […] Is it possible to be both – גר ותושב – at the same time? Is not this definition absurd since it contravenes the central principle of classical logic that no cognitive judgment may contain two mutually exclusive terms? And yet the Jew of old defied this time-honored principle and did think of himself in contradictory terms. He knew well in what areas he could extend his full cooperation to his neighbors and act as toshav […] and at what point he must disengage as if he were a ger. The boundary between a finite idea and a principle nurtured by infinity, transient possessions, and eternal treasures, was clear and precise’
Man is a dialectical being; and this division runs deeply through every level of his personality: a tension between particularism and universalism affecting everything he does and wherever he sets his feet. Christian theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas developed a discourse that this schism is chiseled at the heart of the human condition, consequentially placed there as a result of man’s revolt against the Creator. Judaism, however, posits that this dialectical relationship is willed by G-d to precisely being ‘the source of man’s greatness and his election as singular charismatic being’, the source of success for man’s creative endeavor in all that he does.
Indeed, there is no reconciliation to the condition of being a stranger and an inhabitant amongst the nations, but there must be no suffering in that condition either. It can be cherished for it allows us to expand our understanding beyond the realms of our tradition. The Rav, again describes this as follows: ‘To Judaism, man has always been and still is a living reality, or may I say a tragic living reality. In the world of [other] realities, the harmony of opposites is an impossibility. […] If man is dialectical, so is his moral gesture. Judaism has indeed formulated such a dialectical morality.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’’l, our teacher, reaches a practical conclusion to this argument, and eloquently puts it: ‘The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made G-d in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his’.
It is very telling that this conversation arises from our Torah section named חיי שרה – ‘Sarah’s lifetime’, precisely detailing how her husband engages with a foreign nation in the purchase of a plot of Land – Cave of Machpelah – to bury his family for generations to come. The Children of Israel, the Children of Sarah, concomitantly particularists, and universalists caught between the demands of Halakhic obligation and the need (or indeed obligation) to live such life amongst the nations in our surroundings. Perhaps this is the very inheritance of our mother Sarah. The same woman who laughed when she was told that at age of 90 and her husband at 100 who never had children, that she should now give birth, and then expect a great nation to arise from her. How absurd!
But Sarah’s legacy, in fact, her very laughter echoes through the generations: the placing of the greatest of expectations on the almost non-starter, the non-existent and unlikely beginnings, an almost ridiculous, far-fetched enterprise! G-d himself willed that Sarah reached this ‘ridiculous’ age so we could produce the seed of the Jewish Nation. Until all human hope had ended, he waited, to create a people who live in the opposite direction of the laws of world history. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch eloquently puts it: ‘The burst of laughter which follows the Jew as he makes his way through history confirms that God leads him on his way. It does not bother him in the least, for he has been prepared from the beginning for this’.
Abraham rises. He knows that Sarah is only physically dead, her bury hidden from sight, buried at the heart of the Cave of Machpelah. Her spirit of enterprise, pragmatism, and daring creativity lives on. Abraham rises; he is certainly able to rise, and together with him, we do likewise, in that same certainty.