All the Details Fit to Print
Genesis chapter 23 is wholly dedicated to a single topic: the burial of Sarah. Our first matriarch passes away at the age of 127 in Kiryat Arba and it's no great surprise that her husband Abraham accepts the responsibility for securing a final resting place for his wife. What is a little unusual, though, is the amount of attention that the Torah pays to this episode. For twenty verses we read details of the conversations between Abraham and the Hittites and Abraham and Ephron son of Zohar. Courtesies are exchanged between the principals, accompanied by haggling that really isn't haggling. For 400 shekels of silver Abraham gets a field, a burial cave and all the trees in the field. Ma'arat HaMakhpela - the cave of Makhpela has passed into Abraham's possession and become the family burial plot. We get the feeling, though, that the Torah could have reported the story in a single verse, perhaps an amalgamation of verses 3, 16 and 19: Then Abraham rose from beside his dead and buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Makhpela, now Hebron, that he had purchased from Ephron for 400 shekels of silver.
Why does the Torah go to such lengths to describe the burial plans and arrangements? Compare for example the short shrift that Abraham himself receives at the end of this week's parasha. In four verses the Torah relates his death and burial. He is interred by his two sons as described in only two verses: "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Makhpela, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamreh, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife" (Genesis 25:9-10).
Our initial understanding of this episode must explore the relationship between Abraham and the land of Israel. After all, the patriarch is not merely burying his dead in this chapter, but acquiring a piece of the land he has been repeatedly promised by God. It has therefore been suggested (see for example Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra 12th century to 23:19) that our tale describes the fulfillment of God's declarations.
Of course, once we remember all the past statements by the Lord about Abraham's future, we have another problem on our hands. In Genesis 13:14-15, for example, God tells Abraham, "Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I will give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever." By spelling out the various steps of the story, our parasha might be trying to emphasize that Abraham was finally getting the land that God has been talking about for over 60 years. But there is no indication in any of the promises that God plans on selling Abraham the land - how polite is it to present somebody with a gift and then turn around and say - that'll be 400 silver shekels, please?
Still, this is Abraham we're talking about and as we've discussed (see last week's essay) he was quite familiar with the difficulties of reconciling God's promises to the reality of his life. Declarations of children and land are usually made together, yet the fulfillment of each is a painful process for the patriarch. Genesis chapter 22 describes the test Abraham faces when told to sacrifice his son after years of waiting for Isaac's birth. He does not complain at the injustice, does not challenge God's motives, does not question whether God is reneging on his vow. Now at Sarah's death, he is faced with the parallel test: although told again and again that the land is his, Abraham's faith in God's word does not waver when he finds himself reaching for his wallet. The Sages are in awe at Abraham's remarkable behavior, adding that while fully aware of who owned the rights to the land, Abraham nevertheless humbled himself when addressing the Hittites saying "I am a resident alien among you." We might therefore interpret the Torah's attention to this story as another opportunity to illustrate the greatness of Abraham's character and trust in God's ways.
The difficulty in explaining the purpose of our chapter as similar to the test in chapter 22, is the sequence of the stories. The Torah makes it quite clear that the Akeda was a test of Abraham's faith. At its end Abraham is told "For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me" (22:12). There is no such declaration in our chapter - the Torah does not state that Abraham was being tested, God does not congratulate him for his trust in Him or for acting the true gentleman by not demanding what was rightfully his. Most importantly, the story of the Akeda is told as a denouement in the long relationship between God and Abraham. Forcing yet another challenge to Abraham's commitment is not only anti-climactic but makes the reader cry "enough!" in sympathy for this old man. I believe this argument is substantiated by the fact that the last recorded communication from God to Abraham is on that wind-swept mountain in the land of Moriah.
Are there perhaps other answers to the question - why must Abraham pay for his gift? Abraham Korman, a 20th century Bible scholar, addresses this issue in the ninth chapter of his book HaAvot veHashevatim. "We should know," he writes, "that God's promise to Abraham to give his descendants the land of Canaan, did not mean that the people could sit back in anticipation of miracles, and that suddenly the land would be theirs! What God promised was that he would direct circumstances enabling the descendants to conquer the land. Did not Moses battle Midian, Sichon and Og? Did not Joshua fight for every town and farm in his conquest of the land? In his zeal to attain a burial site Abraham strove as well, to actualize the promise. By taking action he participated in the start of the promise's realization."
Clearly, we can argue that God has manipulated the situation in Abraham's favor. In his time of mourning, Abraham is met only with kindness from his neighbors. Ephron is quite willing to part with his land and initially even waives any payment. The fact that Abraham has no trouble raising the 400 shekels is also attributable to God. After the burial the Torah states "Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things" (Genesis 24:1). That Abraham must act in the story is not proof that it is not an account of God fulfilling His promise.
In a similar vein, we can cite the notion that anything worth having is worth working for. This is stated in relation to the land of Israel by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: "The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings. These are: The Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come" (Talmud Berakhot 5a). The land is not merely intended as a home for the Jewish people but as a place used for the service of God. And like the acquisition of Torah knowledge and the reward of the next world, obtaining the land and making it blossom demand a struggle. Chapter 22 therefore illustrates Abraham's efforts to secure a part of his homeland as a foreshadowing of his descendants' toil upon entering Israel.
A final way of understanding the declarations God has made is that Abraham himself was never meant to be given the land. Israel was always intended as an inheritance to his descendants. While some of the promises are to Abraham - "I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession" (Genesis 15:7), most of the references are to Abraham and his offspring. Furthermore, when telling Abraham about the future oppression of his descendants in chapter 15, God informs him that "they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (verse 16). Perhaps formal acquisition of the land would have to wait until after the slavery. Accepting this fact would have gone hand in hand with the recognition that the dream of countless offspring would not be realized in his own lifetime. Abraham died with one son and one patch of land. Thus our chapter is not about the fulfillment of God's promise.
The commentators list other morals to be derived from our story. The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman 13th century), for example, suggests that the story indicates that God's very first promise has come true. In Genesis 12:2 God states "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." And lo and behold, here are the Hittites treating him with great respect while saying to Abraham "Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us" (23:6). The Ramban adds that the Torah here was intent on telling us the location of our ancestors' burial. But, as we've mentioned, the Torah seems to go to a lot of trouble in making only that point.
I would like to suggest one final message that our parasha has to offer, but to do that I want to switch to a different genre - the prayer book. The Amida prayer is traditionally ascribed to the Men of the Great Assembly, a body of scholars which functioned in Israel roughly in the 3rd century BCE (see Talmud Megilla 17b). The first blessing of the 19 comprising this prayer is AVOT in which the Jew recognizes the Lord as God of the patriarchs and calls upon Him to remember CHASDEI AVOT, a term literally meaning "the patriarchs' acts of righteousness." The prayer seems to be requesting redemption for the descendants based on the merits of our ancestors. What did the authors have in mind as the acts of righteousness exhibited by the three biblical characters?
Identifying the kindness of Abraham is a simple matter. We see him showing hospitality to three guests, followed by an anxious prayer to God to spare the inhabitants of Sodom. Finding similar behavior in his son and grandson is more difficult. In fact, Jacob's treatment of his brother and father seems less than virtuous. We are a little more successful when we allow rabbinic interpretation into the discussion. According to the Sages, the patriarchs intuited and kept the entire Torah long before the commandments were instituted at Sinai. This is viewed by some as CHESED because righteousness is anything that goes beyond the letter of the law. Since these individuals were not responsible for following the guidelines of Judaism, observance of the mitzvot is CHASDEI AVOT (see for example the commentary Dover Shalom on the Siddur by Rabbi Yitzchak Landau 19th century).
But there is yet another act of kindness performed by all three of the patriarchs. This, of course, is the burial of their dead. In Judaism, burying a person is considered the ultimate righteousness - a CHESED SHEL EMET, a true act of CHESED, because the mourner knows that there is no way the dead can ever repay him for his kindness. In our parasha, Abraham while taking pains to bury his wife, insures that future generations will be able to perform the mitzva as well. His elaborate preparations teach his sons the importance of showing the proper respect to the dead. When Abraham dies in chapter 25, the Torah need not relate that episode in great detail since the foundations have already been laid in this family for the necessary arrangements. It is sufficient to mention that Isaac and Ishmael took care of their father's body as he had taken care of Sarah's - they have learned the lesson by watching Abraham. Jacob too is careful to bury his wife Rachel (Genesis 35:19) and he and Esav come together to bury Isaac (35:27). We learn later from Jacob that his father buried Rebecca in the family cave, and that he himself has buried Leah there (49:31). This information is related as part of Jacob's dying wish to Joseph to make sure to bury him in Canaan.
The cynical reader might be unimpressed and argue that this behavior is not all that unusual, nor is honor of the dead specific to Judaism. Perhaps not, but burial is the one single act that binds the patriarchs. Furthermore, whether or not they intuited the Torah or the existence of God, the term CHESED usually connotes an act of kindness towards another human being. It is therefore my feeling that the authors of the Amida prayer were thinking of burial in their choice of the phrase CHASDEI AVOT. Perhaps this is how the AVOT blessing connects to the second one in the Amida which talks about God's promises of resurrection of the dead.
As for parashat Chayei Sarah, I believe that the Torah emphasized the care and attention Abraham showed his wife, to illustrate that his behavior made a lasting impression on his children. The veneration that Abraham's descendants have for him and his family is due in part to the respect they showed for each other.