Chayei Sara | Life After Sara
This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Ruchy Yudkowsky
in memory of Yehuda Yudkowsky z"l
Our parasha is called Chayei Sara - The Life of Sara. The irony is that our parasha describes her death rather than her life. Her life is mentioned in but a single line, followed by three stories:
1. Abraham's acquisition of a burial plot for his wife,
2. Finding a wife for Isaac, and
3. Abraham's second marriage to Ketura.
These stories make up the entire content of our parasha. They are also everything that we know of the last forty years of Abraham's life. We may well ask: is there any common thread which links these stories? What is it about these three episodes that they should be all the information that we need about Abraham's final years?
We will discuss the parasha - examining it story by story - and we will begin to see a pattern unfolding through the pages of our chumash.
THE BUYING OF THE CAVE OF MAKHPELA
Abraham approaches benei Chet who send him on to a man named Efron. There is much bargaining about the terms under which the plot may be purchased and the negotiations result in the sale of a field containing the burial cave in exchange for four hundred silver shekels.
"Abraham rose from beside his dead and spoke to the Hittites, saying. 'I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial.' And the Hittites replied to Abraham, saying to him 'Hear us, my lord, you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you...'
Thereupon Abraham bowed low to the people of the land, the Hittites, and he said to them 'If it is your wish that I remove my dead for burial, you must agree to intercede with Efron ben Zohar. Let him sell me that cave of Makhpela that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.'
Efron lived amongst the Hittites. Efron answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, all who entered the gate of his town saying: 'No, my lord, hear me: I give you this field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.'
Then Abraham bowed low before the people of the land and spoke to Efron in the hearing of the people of the land saying 'If only you will hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.'
And Efron replied to Abraham, saying to him, 'My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver what is it between you and me? Go bury your dead."
Abraham accepted Efron's terms. Abraham paid out to Efron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites - four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants' rate." (23:1-16)
Is this just ancient bargaining technique? Does the Torah need to give such a detailed description of the negotiations to buy the cave? Even as the acquisition of a focal national landmark, the lengthy negotiations painstakingly recorded here seem somewhat unusual. What is this story trying to communicate to us?
THE LAND OF ISRAEL
This question was not lost on many of our classic commentators. They offered their own answers.
The Ibn Ezra (b. Spain 1092, author of a very independent and original Bible commentary) writes:
"This parasha is intended to demonstrate the special status of Eretz Yisrael over all other lands for both the living and the dead. It also is the expression of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that the land will become an inheritance for him."
The Ibn Ezra stresses two points. The first, that the Land of Israel has a certain benefit for even the dead. Even nowadays, Jews around the world have been known to issue a request to be buried in Israel. Apparently, the common wisdom has it that even if Israel may not be the place to live in, maybe it will be a good place to be buried. Ibn Ezra sees this parasha as support for this widespread teaching.
He adds a second dimension - that here we see the first piece of land to pass into Abraham's ownership. This is the first step of a long process of inheritance that God has promised to Abraham.
A PRINCE OF GOD IN THE LAND
The Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270 Spain - Eretz Yisrael. Bible scholar, talmudist, doctor) rejects these lessons of the Ibn Ezra for seemingly good reasons:
"I do not understand the words of Rabbi Avraham (Ben Ezra) when he talks about the supreme status of Eretz Yisrael for the dead. How does this story demonstrate the supremacy of the land - he would not have taken her to another land to bury her! And as for his second point; the promise of inheritance of the Land refers to the land in its entirety and this was fulfilled later in time to his descendants."
The Ramban offers his own interpretation of the significance of this story:
"This parasha is written to inform of God's kindness to Abraham. He came to the land to be but a sojourner, but he has become 'a prince of the Lord' in the land. Both individual and collective refer to him with a title of reverence although he had never indicated to them that he was of great stature. He experienced, in his own lifetime, God's promise "And I will make your name great" (12:2).
The Ramban is of the opinion that this story expresses Abraham's widespread renown and acclaim. Indeed, the account of this story in the Torah seems to be replete with expressions and gestures of honor and veneration for Abraham. The Hittites do not wish to have "the elect of God amongst us" pay them a fee. It would be an affront to him, beneath his dignity. The Ramban would seem to be correct. Abraham seems to be a well-respected man.
But in the same way that Ramban found fault with the Ibn Ezra, we may well ask: why all the repetitive details? And furthermore, does this story really prove inconclusively that Abraham was well respected? Could we not suggest that it was all a ploy to extract more money? After all, they did charge him a considerable sum in the end - four hundred silver pieces! The Ramban's explanation is far from foolproof. And maybe last of all, if the Ramban is correct, why is this lesson so important as to warrant a story, twenty verses in length?
[Nechama Leibowitz (The most famous Bible teacher of our time; a modest lady who was a master teacher of Bible with commentaries.; d. 1997 at the age of 92) makes an interesting point about this Ramban. She notes how Nachmanides was a fervent Zionist. He was passionate about Eretz Yisrael. He wrote about the Holy Land. He came to Israel at the age of 75 from Spain and was active in building the community here. However, she notes that the Ramban rejects Ibn Ezra's "Zionist" approach. The Ramban does not see this parasha as reflecting the importance of the land. He rejects this interpretation because he feels that it is not in accordance with the flow of the text. This just goes to show the extent to which commentators are true to the text rather than reading their own philosophies into the story.]
STRANGER AND RESIDENT
A comment by Rav Soloveitchik zt"l (Brilliant talmudist and leader of Modern Orthodoxy in the USA and worldwide. 1903-1993) in one of his public lectures leads us in a very different direction:
"The first Patriarch, Abraham, introduced himself to the inhabitants of Canaan with the words, 'I am a stranger and a resident among you' (23:4). Are not these two terms mutually exclusive?
"Abraham's definition of his dual status, we believe, describes with profound accuracy the historical position of the Jew who resides in a predominantly non-Jewish society. He was the resident, like other inhabitants of Canaan, sharing with them a concern for the welfare of society, digging wells and contributing to the progress of the country in loyalty to its government and institutions. Here, Abraham was clearly a fellow citizen, a patriot among compatriots, joining others in advancing the common welfare.
"However, there was another aspect, the spiritual, in which Abraham regarded himself as a stranger. His identification and solidarity with his fellow citizens in the secular realm did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness. His was a different faith and he was governed by perceptions, truths, and observances which set him apart from the larger faith community. In this regard, Abraham and his descendants would always remain 'strangers.'" (Reflections of the Rav. Chapter 16)
Rav Soloveitchik applies this reading to a far wider context than the specific story of Abraham. He sees it as a paradigm of the paradoxical position of every Jew living amongst the nations.
"Like other people, the Jew has more than one identity. He is part of a larger family of mankind, but he also has a Jewish identity which separates him from others. Each identity imposes upon him particular responsibilities. As a citizen of a pluralistic society, the Jew assumes social and political obligation to contribute to the general welfare and to combat such common dangers as famine, corruption, disease and foreign enemies ... freedom, dignity and security of human life. These are concerns which transcend all boundaries of difference.
"The Jew, however has another identity which he does not share with the rest of mankind: the covenant with God which was established at Mt. Sinai three thousand years ago. .. This identity involves responsibilities and a way of life which are uniquely Jewish and which, inevitably set the Jew apart from non-Jews. It is particularistic, rather than universalistic...
"There is an inevitable tension in trying to uphold these two identities." (ibid.)
Rav Soloveitchik is not simply interpreting one phrase of the parasha. It is possible to read the entire Hittite-Abraham discussion along the lines of this dialectical position.
The Hittites open their hand to Abraham: "Here, take our land" - they say - "You are one of us - 'the elect of God AMONG US' - we will be happy to include you in our community!" Abraham wants none of it. He stresses time after time, "I want no gifts, I want to pay good money and to buy something legally. I will not live AMONG YOU as a subsidiary within your community. I do not belong within your community. I want a field which will pass as an inheritance down the line, from me to my son, to his son."
The Hittites offer Abraham residency but he prefers to remain the stranger.
BURIAL AND PERMANENCE
Why now? Why does Abraham feel the need to make an acquisition of property at this particular juncture in his life? Why did he not make this statement previously?
We might venture the following answer. A person can live in any number of places. Today, in an age of global mobility, people move country with their job, students study abroad, we are able to feel at home in many places. But a person expresses his belonging to a place not necessarily by where he lived but rather where he wants to be buried. How many times do we hear about the desire of a deceased relative to be buried in the family graveyard, even if it means transporting the body many thousands of miles? Where a person is buried expresses where they expect the next generation to be. They want their grave to be recognized by the next generation. The place where a person chooses to be buried is the place that expresses permanence.
It is interesting that this very acquisition of the Makhpela cave - the ancestral burial ground - became a vital link, and maybe the sole link, with the Land of Canaan. Not only are Isaac and Rebecca buried there but Jacob as well; when he had already been resident in Egypt for seventeen years, Jacob makes Joseph take an oath to bring him back to the land of Canaan to the Cave of Makhpela:
"Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from the Egypt and bury me in their burial place" (47:29-30 and see also 49:29-33).
This may have influenced Joseph in his own request to his children, not to be brought to final rest in Egypt. Rather, he commands them to bring his bones to the Land of Israel when they eventually leave Egypt (50:24-25). Joseph - the man who leads Egypt and draws the entire family to that country - still feels that his homeland is the Land of Israel. This expresses itself not in his life but rather in his death. A man expresses true belonging in the choice of place in which he wishes to be buried.
It is when it comes to the time of burial that Abraham expresses a definite desire to acquire a lasting inheritance.
A WIFE FOR ISAAC
We have spoken at length about the business transaction of the Cave of Makhpela, but what of our other two stories? Let us look at them.
First; the mission to find a wife for Isaac.
Abraham is getting old (24:1) and feels a need to do his fatherly duty of finding a wife for his son and heir. He approaches his servant and requests that he find a wife for his son Isaac. He is strict about his stipulations. First, the wife must not be a local girl, but rather should come from Abraham's birthplace. Second, even if a suitable girl is found outside the confines of Canaan, she must be willing to join Isaac in Canaan. Under no conditions is Isaac to leave the country. (See last year's Introduction to Parasha shiur where Zvi Shimon wrote at length regarding this episode.)
AMONGST WHOM I DWELL
Abraham's command is phrased in a manner which arouses the curiosity of the commentators. He says to his servant:
"I will make you swear by the Lord ... that you will not take a wife for my son Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell" (24:3-4).
The Kli Yakar (Efraim Solomon ben Chaim of Lunshitz 1550-1619, Rabbi of Lemberg and renowned preacher (maggid)) asks about the double expression here. Abraham says not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Why add "amongst whom I dwell?" We know that Abraham lives in Canaan amongst Canaanites!
The Kli Yakar reads this phrase as a reason rather than an instruction. Do not take a girl from Canaan BECAUSE I dwell amongst them. He explains Abraham's logic in the following way:
"He said to himself, if my son marries a girl from Canaan, since we live amongst them, my son will frequent their homes and will learn from their (idolatrous) ways. Furthermore if my son marries of the daughters of Laban and Betu'el and will go to live with them, there is also a probability that he will be influenced by their actions. By marrying a woman from abroad who will come to live here, there is no worry at all."
Abraham knows that the nations who live around do not share his high ethical standards and his monotheism. How is he to ensure that the future generations will continue the traditions that he has set? The only way is to isolate the estate of Abraham.
If Isaac were to marry a woman from one of the local tribes he would need to visit the in-laws, attending their family celebrations. Even if he found a perfect wife, he would be exposed to their culture and open to influence. This is a chance that Abraham prefers not to take. Rather, he opts to protect Isaac from the surrounding culture. As regards the wife for his son - his son's lifelong companion and fellow believer - Abraham insists that there can be no compromise. Maybe this 'perfect couple' can go out and face the world together as a unit, but the core must be well protected and properly cultivated.
The final story of our parasha is interesting. Abraham remarries to a woman named Ketura. They have a number of children. Abraham's children and grandchildren from his second wife are all listed. But then we see a strange thing:
"Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham's sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living and sent them away from Isaac his son eastward to the land of the east" (25:5-6).
We have just heard about the marriage and no sooner do we know of children and grandchildren than we are told that they are sent away. Why would Abraham send his own children away? What is he doing? What parent sends his children away from home?
The key to understanding this episode lies in one phrase. The children of Ketura are sent "away from Isaac his son." Are they not all his sons? Apparently, some sons are of greater significance than others. Isaac is the heir to Abraham's legacy.
In truth, we cannot read this parasha without remembering the story of Abraham and Yishmael (21:8-21). The two stories bear a strong resemblance. In that story, Sara tells Abraham to send Yishmael away - "for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance of my son Isaac" (21:10). Abraham is greatly upset by this incident. How can he send his child away from home? In that story, God commands him to listen to Sara rather than follow his moral-fatherly instincts and Abraham obeys, sending Yishmael away. (The Midrash draws an interesting parallel between the two stories by suggesting that Ketura is in fact Hagar - mother of Yishmael!)
In light of that parasha, we may strengthen our question. What has changed in Avraham? Why does he seem unbothered by sending his children away here - initiating it - whereas with Yishmael, he was so troubled? What has changed?
SECURING THE FUTURE
What has changed is the death of Sara. Sara's death brings certain values into focus that might not have been clear previously.
When we look at the parasha as a whole, we realize that the three stories of our parasha share a common theme. They all deal with securing the future. Each story is one of isolating or strengthening the future of the Abrahamic household in some way.
The story of the buying of the burial plot expresses Abraham's individuality, his stranger status, his unique mission. The aim is to establish a foothold, a statement of belonging for generations to come. The search for a wife for Isaac once again emphasizes the desire to secure the future. He wants to know that Isaac has a family, that there will be an ongoing continuity. He also wishes to isolate Isaac. The future of the Jewish people lies in Isaac's ability to continue Abraham's ethical monotheism. He must set up a home which can be hermetically sealed against the buffeting cultural currents of Canaanite practice. This is also the objective that Abraham sets himself when he gives Isaac all his inheritance and distances all his other children. He decides that a statement must be made. Isaac is my heir. He is the heir to my spiritual path and he is also heir to my wealth. The two are not to be separated so as not to allow any misunderstanding.
The parasha has a singular theme. Securing the future of Abraham's legacy.
SARA - THE BACKBONE OF THE FAMILY
Why does Sara's death precipitate this reaction?
Maybe it is the reality of mortality that gives Abraham a jolt, activating his concern with securing the future. Sara's death brings Abraham's mortality into focus and he now feels a need to set his house in order, to ensure that Isaac is married and that the family mission will continue.
But maybe this change in Abraham is linked to Sara's unique personality.
When we review Sara's life, we see in every story where she is mentioned, that she is a woman who is ready for self-sacrifice. She sacrifices her security and peace of mind to travel across the middle east to fulfill her husband's mission. She is willing to risk sexual advances by kings and leaders to protect her husband's life. She is even willing to allow another woman into her husband's bedroom to give Abraham his much desired son.
Throughout Sara's life, she experiences personal hardship. All these hardships have a single purpose. She is dedicated to the mission of Abraham and she is fully committed to it. She will protect Abraham even at great personal cost. She will ensure that Abraham has a child even if it affects her marriage. She will assist Abraham in every way in order to secure the future of the Jewish mission.
This explains her insistence that Yishmael be sent away. She is not a heartless, callous woman. But she does realize that the "covenant will be established through Isaac" (17:21) and thus Yishmael has to be sent away: "For the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance of my son Isaac" (21:10). If Isaac is to be heir to Abraham's lifework, there must be no other competitors for that title.
In this trait, Sara is a perfect partner for Abraham. Abraham and Sara are a team. Abraham's central trait is kindness. He welcomes every stranger into his home. He is open to everyone, overflowing with goodness and giving. He prays on behalf of sinners. He finds it difficult to see the bad in people. Sara is the counterbalance. She has a certain shrewd realism about her which balances Abraham's openness. Sara is the tough woman who makes the difficult decisions in the house. She decides that Yishmael must go, and God approves of her decision. Abraham with all his Chesed will not let Yishmael go, but God tells him that this is not the place for Chesed. Sara's decision is correct - "listen to her" (21:12).
With Sara's death, Abraham realizes that he has lost a side of his personality. While Sara was alive, Abraham could exercise his open, welcoming lifestyle because he knew that Sara would spot any potential trouble. Abraham was the soft side of the family and he knew that Sara's sharp incisive mind would ensure that his blind faith in human goodness would not lead him to ruin.
But now Sara is dead. Abraham has to adopt her role. The three stories that we are told after Sara's death are all about Abraham assuming Sara's role. He spends his time ensuring the successful future of the Abrahamic dynasty. He has to act in a Sara-like manner.
Maybe then, this parasha is more appropriately named than we originally assumed. This parasha is a true expression of "Chayei Sara" - the life of Sara.