This Shabbats D’var Torah was given by Marylou Grimberg
This sedra tells such a nice story, quite unlike the harrowing stories that have gone before. No brother kills his brother. There are no floods. No cities are destroyed. No one is turned into a pillar of salt. Everyone is just plain – well – nice. They are even kind to animals. What more can we want? However unusual such unremitting pleasantness is, it doesn’t leave much incentive for discussion, but on further examination another story emerges. This other story is not one I have dreamed up, but a story that arises from the writings of various rabbis and scholars.
For a start, the overt niceness is misleading. From the word go Abraham is at a disadvantage. In his own words he is a resident alien. His wife is dead and he has nowhere to bury her. He states his desire to buy a burial site, and the local people, the Hittites, make his position, his status – or lack of status – quite clear with their excessively polite response. ‘[H]ear us, my lord . . . bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold the choicest of our burial places from you . . .’. This apparent generosity may be interpreted another way: What the Hittites are saying is that these are indeed their burial grounds, not Abraham’s, and they are certainly not going to sell any of their land to this ‘resident alien’. Sarah must lie among strangers for ever.
Abraham, in his turn, bows low. He does a lot of bowing in this sedra, but it is not the bowing of ritual good manners. No one bows in response. Abraham is abasing himself, yet despite this show of humility he is not cowed. He persists. He tells the Hittites that he even knows the piece of land he wishes to buy – the Cave of Machpelah. It is owned by a wealthy notable named Ephron and Abraham asks the Hittites to intercede with Ephron for him. After all, they all agree he must bury Sarah somewhere.
Ephron himself is there among the people and he immediately enters into negotiations, offering to give the cave and the adjoining field to Abraham. Again, this apparent generosity is misleading. It is a ploy. Abraham understands this. It is an opening gambit, Middle Eastern style. Furthermore, Abraham doesn’t want a gift, perhaps because he fears it would have no legal status. He wants legal title to the land. Ephron also is fully aware of this. So when Abraham again politely insists that he wishes to buy the land Ephron throws in the information that in reality he expects to receive quite a large sum for the cave and field: ‘A piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver’ he says casually, ‘what is that between you and me?’ This is disingenuous. He is naming his price.
Some commentators believe this sum to be exorbitant, and it probably was a bit steep, although it’s hard to tell at this distance in time. Abraham, however, does not flinch, nor does he bargain. He simply pays up.
This is perhaps the first of the most significant points in the story. The Pirkei Avos tells us that Abraham was tested ten times by God, but does not tell us what those ten tests were. Maimonides, of course, has his list in which the Akedat Yitzhak is the tenth and final test. Although other scholars have drawn up lists that vary in detail almost all agree that the binding of Isaac was indeed the final test.
However, Rabbeinu Yonah, a 13th Century Catalan scholar, disagrees. He writes in his commentary on Pirkei Avos:
The tenth trial was [Abraham’s] wife Sarah’s burial. God told him, “Arise and traverse the land . . . because to you I will give it.” Despite this promise, when his wife died he could not find a place to bury her . . . ,
Indeed, what had happened to God’s promise to give Abraham the entire land of Canaan?
To his credit, Abraham does not complain and when he does acquire a place to bury Sarah he does not dispute the price. This purchase of a small piece of real estate is essentially an unremarkable occurrence. Nonetheless, Rabbeinu Yonah believes that Abraham’s uncomplaining acceptance is of itself remarkable.
Abraham is still an outsider in the land where he lives, his beloved wife is dead. As God’s promise is unfulfilled he has nowhere to bury her, but he does not say to God ‘Why are you doing this to me? What more do you want from me?’ He is, after all, quite capable of questioning God. He had done so at length in the previous parshah, over the destruction of the cities of the plain, but that had been on behalf of others. In this instance he resolves the problem himself without question or complaint.
Rav Yissocher Frand notes that there is a story in the Gemara in which Satan addresses God marvelling at such steadfastness and at the fact that when Abraham ‘was unable to find any place in which to bury Sarah he did not complain against thy ways’. It is from this that Rabbeinu Yonah concludes that the burial of Sarah was indeed the tenth test, and that Abraham passes it.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments: ‘Abraham did not wait for God to act. He understood one of the profoundest truths of Judaism: that God is waiting for us to act.’
So the first step is taken, by Abraham himself, towards the fulfilment of one part of God’s promise – the ownership of the land of Canaan.
As to the second strand of that promise – Av Raham. Abraham realises that if he is indeed to be a father of multitudes, he himself has a role to play. Things don’t look too promising. His son Ishmael is in exile, and what of his son Isaac? He’s nearly 40 years old and still unmarried. So Abraham again takes matters into his own hands. He commands his servant, unnamed in the text but generally assumed to be Eliezer, to go to the land of Abraham’s birth to find a wife for Isaac. That is another whole story. Briefly, Eliezer’s mission is successful and he returns to Hebron with Rebecca. This works out well. Isaac loves her and the second strand of God’s promise is beginning to be fulfilled.
But it is the final verses that are truly arresting. Abraham dies peacefully, is buried in the Cave of Machpelah, and is gathered to his ancestors. But, he is buried by both his sons – Isaac and Ishmael. Where did Ishmael come from?
According to Rabbi Sacks, there is a story of reconciliation to be explored here: reconciliation between Abraham and Isaac on the one hand and Hagar and Ishmael on the other. He notes that the sages suggest that Abraham’s second wife Keturah, whom he married after Sarah’s death, was in fact Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. There is also a midrash which tells a story of Abraham visiting Ishmael’s home twice when Ishmael was a grown man. He brought Ishmael good fortune, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.
Following on from this Rabbi Sacks observes that ‘Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons . . . . There is hope for the future in this story of the past.’
But we ourselves have to act, not wait for God.