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Parashat 10/27/2010

Parashat Chayei Sarah

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Although the bulk of this week’s Parashah is devoted to the story of Eliezer’s successful search for a wife for Yitzchak, the earlier portion gives considerable attention to Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot for Sarah.  I believe that, in the spirit of “the deeds of our ancestors are a sign for their descendents,” much of what happens has relevance to us today, as we sort out the relationship between ourselves, the Land of Israel, and the nations of the world.

First we note that Avraham must approach the native peoples and petition to be allowed to purchase a landholding.  This in fact is considered by our Sages to be one of Avraham’s 10 trials.  Despite the many promises Gd made that the Land would be his and his descendents’, it was not clear that he would even be able to bury his dead there.  Avraham tells the Hittites “A sojourner and a resident am I with you” (23:4) and Rashi quotes the Midrash as saying: “If you want I am a sojourner, but if not I’ll be a resident and I’ll take the plot by law, for Gd has told me ‘to your descendents I will give this Land.’

Apparently the sale of any of the Land to “outsiders” was frowned upon, for the Hittites offer “the best of our gravesites” to Avraham for use in burying Sarah, sort of a lease arrangement.  Perhaps they thought, or hoped, that Avraham would move on after a while.  Avraham, however, asks for an achuzat kever; the word achuzah comes from a root meaning “to grasp” or “to hold.”  In other words, Avraham wants to buy the land, and after making it known that money was no object, the owner of the land he wanted finally did sell, for an exhorbitant sum of money.

This is the first of three instances where full price was paid for land in Israel, deals made out in the open and recorded in Scripture.  The second was the purchase of a field around Shechem by Ya’akov upon his return from Lavan, and the third was the purchase of the site of the Temples in Jerusalem by King David.  The first two of course came before Gd’s promise was fulfilled, and the third was afterward.  The three locations are right along the spine of the Land of Israel: Shechem (Ya’akov.  Shechem is the modern Nablus = Neopolis = “new city” although Shechem is quite ancient), Jerusalem (David) and Chevron (Avraham).  They are also the sites most hotly contested by the so-called Palestinians, although their interest in this land does not go back any further than the Jews’ repossession of it.

Why does Scripture spend time describing real estate transactions that happened long ago?  First, these transactions set the pattern for our relationship to the Land to this day.  At the beginning of the Zionist enterprise we, as a people, found ourselves exactly in the position of Avraham.  We were still the rightful possessors of the Land, having relinquished neither claim nor connection through all the vicissitudes of history.  Yet we were forced to repurchase the land, often twice, from absentee landlords in Beirut or Istanbul, and from the peasants working it.  We were often forced to pay once again with the blood of our children, as in Chevron in 1929, or in any of the wars that we have fought with our adversaries.  Even today, Arabs are executed by our “peace partners” for the “crime” of selling land to a Jew, and the world decries our attempts to live in the properties we have purchased.

These same adversaries try at every turn to deligitimize our claim to the Land and to deny our connection to it – from their maps to their destruction of inconvenient archaeological artifacts to the outrageous lies they broadcast to a world all to willing to hear.  Our main line of defense is intense love of the Land and longing for the opportunity to live there.  If we think there is not much difference between Tel Aviv and LA, we might as well live in LA – it’s safer and more convenient.  Our forebears showed their love of the Land over and over again, and they were privileged to inherit it.  If we disdain it, we will remain in exile from it.  And since the Land of Israel is uniquely suited to our spiritual strivings, we will remain estranged from the root of our own souls.  It is true that as Jews we are ultimately in exile from our true “home” in the World to Come, where we can bask in the light of the Shechinah, free of all the coverings and distortions of material reality.  But while our souls are clothed in material bodies we have a special mission to perform.  Obviously, being scattered among all the nations of the earth was part of that mission.  Now, in our generation, we have the opportunity to bring that mission to fulfillment in our ancestral homeland, the Land which is suited to us, and we to it.  It is up to us to seize the opportunity and bring history to its fulfillment.