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Torah Portion: Chaye Sarah

Book of Genesis

Chaps. 23:1-25:18

November 6, 2015

            “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan. . .Then 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.” (Gen. 23: 3-4)

Abraham’s request for a burial plot is graciously accepted by the Hittite leader Ephron who responds, “You are the elect of God among us.  Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.” (Gen. 23: 6)  To this point, we have a simple story of the loss of a beloved wife, the desire to accord her honor and dignity in burial, and native residents opening their arms to comfort the mourner and provide for his needs.

According to a commentary written by Rabbi Brad Artson, “something is strangely missing here; there is no reference in this description to the Divine gift of the land to Abraham and his descendants.  Isn’t one of the principal points of Genesis the proclaiming of God’s conferral of ownership of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) on Abraham and his heir, the Jews, for all time?”  In other words, why need Abraham negotiate a burial place in a land he has been given by God?

Over the centuries, there have been several efforts to explain this negotiation.  Many biblical scholars associate Abraham’s business deal with the Hittites as a first step in acquiring the Land of Israel, not just through divine promise but actual acquisition.  However, Artson suggests a more enlightened way to understand these dealings: “Abraham made a point of respecting the humanity of his pagan hosts. . .taking seriously the perspective of the Hittites, their customs, and their proprieties.

Today, the modern State of Israel struggles with competing claims.  The Palestinians claim the Land of Israel is their native homeland and the Jews claim it is theirs.  Each side traces their genealogical history to this same small strip of land on the Mediterranean.  Can competing truths co-exist?  Does one side possess a monopoly on Divine will?

Abraham was intuitive enough to understand there is nothing to be gained by boasting his claim to the Land supersedes the Hittites.  If maintaining a peaceful co-existence means learning to live together with respect for each other’s  historical narrative, so be it.

Can the modern State of Israel remain a Jewish homeland yet respect the rights, history, and cultural uniqueness of all her inhabitants living within her borders?  Can Arabs, and especially Palestinians, respect the Jews place in this ancient land and work with them to move beyond politics to concern for each other’s humanity?  Can we all be a little more like Abraham?!

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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