Chayei Sara

Texts and beliefs By Alan Orchover 23rd Nov 2016

The sidra called “Sarah’s lifetime” deals with her death and burial.

Sarah was the only woman whose age is given in the Bible. The Midrash states that as her years were filled with real living, the text expresses her lifespan of 127 as 100, twenty and seven years .

The acquisition by Abraham of Sarah’s tomb is related in detail, with Abraham negotiating for Machpelah – not mentioned anywhere else outside Bereshit – as a purchase of land and refusing to accept it as a gift. Abraham states to the Hittites, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site that I may remove my dead for burial.” The reply is significant: “Hear us my lord; you are a prince of God among us. None of us will withhold from you his burial place for burying your dead.” Thereupon Abraham bows very low to the people of the land, even to the Hittites.

The Midrash states, “I am a stranger and a settler [Ger vetoshav] – this means a stranger having come from another land, but I have settled among you.” Rashi continues, “If you agree to sell me the land then I will regard myself as a stranger and will pay the full asking price for it, but if not, I shall claim it as a settler and will take it as my legal right because God promised ‘Unto thy seed I give this land.'”  Then why did Abraham not claim Machpelah as his by right? Why did he prostrate himself, grovel before the ‘people of the land’ and insist on paying for the burial place the price asked for by Ephron the Hittite, 400 shekels of silver?

Twice Abraham prostrates himself to the ‘people of the land’ – and insists on paying for the land.

A close reading of the text reveals profound anxiety behind Abraham’s measured phrases. He has no assurance that the Hittites will agree to his request. He might have had to bury his wife somewhere by the roadside, as Jacob was later forced to do with Rachel. He seeks desperately for something physical, even a grave site to call his own.  He must ask others – strangers – to do what he cannot do for himself, and despite God’s promise he has to obtain a piece of earth.  We see in this man ingratiating himself before the Hittites, God’s friend torn between agony and hope. A burial place for the dead is the only piece of land that Abraham, a non-resident, can hope to acquire. It represents a token title to the promised land, a symbol of possession when the people are far from the land, whether in slavery or in exile. The Midrash states, “Let no-one claim the land was stolen.”

During the Yishuv before the State of Israel, land was acquired by purchase at exorbitant prices from absent landlords of what was often malaria-infested swamp. After 1948 and then the Six-Day War. the remainder of the land was obtained by right. This is the dilemma we face with the rest of the world. Is it only the land obtained as by Abraham for the full price to which we have an unimpeachable title, or was this land, as with Abraham, only a symbol of ownership of the whole land, to which the Jewish people were entitled by reason of their historical ownership of the land up to the Roman expulsion, and their residence during the period of the Ottoman Empire? This complex problem lies with whoever  may be the Ephrons and the Hittites of today.

Alan Orchover is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue.

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