Why did Abraham purchase the Cave of Machpela and why should we care?

The Torah is known for its extreme brevity. Yet, this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah goes into great detail in telling two stories: the purchase by Abraham of a burial plot for his wife, Sarah, and the procurement by Abraham’s trusted servant of a suitable wife for his son, Isaac.

Let us focus on the first: why does the Torah describe in such elaborate length and detail Abraham’s negotiation with the local inhabitants for the cave of Machpela?

Here are three possible answers:

  1. Benno Jacob, a 20th century commentator often quoted by Nechama Leibowitz, says, the Torah’s purpose is to show the great love and respect that Abraham had for Sarah. He goes through an elaborate negotiation and pays an exorbitant price to make sure she has a dignified burial place. The Torah records every aspect of the negotiation to highlight Abraham’s devotion to his lifelong mate.
  2. Jonathan Sacks brilliantly points out that there were two promises repeatedly made by God to Abraham: one was the promise of all the land of Canaan; the second that he would be the father of many nations. Yet at this point in the Biblical story, Abraham does not own one iota of the Promised land and his heir to God’s promises, Isaac, is a single bachelor approaching 40, without a child of his own. So, Abraham realizes, it is up to him to begin the process of getting both promises fulfilled: he buys the cave of Machpela using consummate negotiation skills and paying a small fortune to get a foothold in the land; and he sends his servant, who goes through his own elaborate negotiation and brings many expensive gifts, to get a proper wife for Isaac. For Sacks, the reason for the detail of these stories is to offer us a leadership lesson: God may promise but we have to exercise our own agency (what is called in current Rabbinic parlance, “hishtadlut”), for those promises to be fulfilled. For Rabbi Sacks, it was not so much Abraham’s respect for Sarah, as his desire to acquire the first land-holding in Israel and to jump start the nation-building of his family that explains the Torah’s detailed narrative in both instances.
  3. I want to piggyback on and deepen Rabbi Sacks idea by returning to the first commentary of Rashi in the book of Genesis. Rashi says there in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak that all of Genesis is included in the Torah to document the Jewish people’s rights to the Land of Israel. Rashi, in a prophetic foreshadowing of our own time, says that when the nations of the world turn to the Jewish People and claim we are colonialist robbers who took the land by force, by might but not by right, then we will look in the Torah and respond: “God created the world and originally, allotted the land to the seven nations. But when those nations sinned through their pagan, immoral behaviors, God took the title for the land away from those nations and gave it as an eternal gift to the Jewish People.”

Many people dismiss Rashi’s idea by pointing to the fact that the other nations of the world, will not – and do not – accept the Biblical story. What good is it, they scoff, that the Torah says what it does? No one will believe us! Perhaps, though, they miss the point. It is not the other nations that the Torah had to convince of the Jewish people’s right to the land with the story of Genesis – it was our own people, who having been exiled in Egypt for hundreds of years, doubted their moral right to this land on which they had never trod or even laid eyes. Their self-doubt is well documented in the story of the Spies recorded in the Biblical book of Numbers. That generation’s lack of self-assurance in regard to conquering the Land of Israel doomed those that were redeemed from Egypt to perish in the desert.

God and Moshe wanted the next generation of Jewish people who were about to begin the process of conquering the land, to fight fiercely and proudly for what was theirs and not to doubt themselves or the justness of their cause. That was why, according to Rashi, when Moses concluded writing the Torah (Deuteronomy 31: 9, 24-27), it included the book of Genesis, with its oft repeated Divine promise to the Land of Israel.

Abraham knew well the importance of persuading and reassuring his descendants of their right to the Land of Israel.  How did he know? Because God had told him at the Covenant of the Pieces, that: “he should know well (‘yadoa tayda’), that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land for 400 years (a very long time!), and that only after the 4th generation would his descendants return to the Land and settle it. At the same time God told Abraham that he, himself, “would be buried at a ripe old age and would be gathered to his ancestors.”

Abraham put two and two together: he realized that for his descendants who would return to the Promised Land after living in a foreign country for hundreds of years and multiple generations, it might be far from self-evident that this land, inhabited by the Canaanite nations, belonged to them. He feared that their enemies would accuse them of having no connection, no rights to the land and that his descendants, hearing their enemies’ taunts, might lose their self-confidence and the belief in the justness of their cause. How to make sure then, that his descendants would know that they have a deep moral connection and a just right to this land? By purchasing a prominent burial plot – the Cave of Machpela – that would anchor the future Jewish people’s claim to the land. His being buried there “at a ripe old age,” and his children and grandchildren being buried alongside him, would provide irrefutable proof to their descendants of their deep historic roots in the land. The purchase of the Machpela Cave would be the lodestone that would draw his descendants back to their ancestral home.

This was why the Torah tells us toward the end of the Book of Genesis (47:28 -31) that Jacob insisted that he too be buried in that ancestral burial plot and made Joseph swear that he would bring his body all the way back from Egypt to be interred there. Like his grandfather, Abraham, he wanted to make sure that all of the descendants of the 12 tribes, four generations after him, would recognize that the land of Israel – and not the land of Egypt – was their ancestral homeland.

That is also why, when Moshe sent the spies in Numbers to survey the land, the Torah tells us that they came to Hevron. Moshe hoped, that by seeing the graves of the three patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish People with their own eyes, the spies would know and report to the people that they were not journeying to conquer a foreign country, but rather that they were coming back to reclaim their own country – their ancestors’ homeland. According to the Talmud (Sotah 34b), Calev, alone of the spies, traveled to Hevron and prayed at his ancestor’s grave, thereby meriting to inherit Hevron in the division of land among the tribes. The remainder of the spies, failing to do so, demoralized the people with their tales of menacing giants among the indigenous nations rather than of seeing the ancestral giants of their own nation.

So in addition to Benno Yaakov who thought that the great detail recorded by the Torah in purchasing the Cave of Machpela was to show Abraham’s great regard for Sarah; and Rabbi Sacks who thinks it was about modeling human initiative in addition to Divine promise, I believe that it was also the Torah’s way of focusing our attention on the real, hard evidence of the Jewish People’s moral and political right to the land of Israel; so that their descendants, who received the completed Torah on the cusp of their conquest of the land, would know that they belonged in their Divinely Promised land by justice and right and not only by conquest and might.

Fast forward – almost four thousand years after Abraham. Now, the fourth millennial generation of the Jewish People have returned to our ancestral homeland. Because of the plots of land purchased by Abraham in Hevron, and King David, emulating him, on Mount Moriah (1 Chronicles 21:24) the Jewish people and the State of Israel are able to anchor our right of return – at least for our own people – to our Founding Fathers prescience and presence in the Land. Contrary to the Palestinian narrative that repeatedly challenges the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel, the Torah’s narrative and our ancestors’ actions empower our people to know that the Israel belongs to us by justice and historical right and not merely by conquest and might.

About the Author
Rabbi Nathan Laufer is former Director of Israel Programs for the Tikvah Fund and President Emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Rendezvous with God (Maggid Press, 2016), Leading the Passover Journey, and The Genesis of Leadership (Jewish Lights, 2005, 2006).
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