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Torah Sparks

October 30, 2010 - 22 Heshvan 5771

Annual: Genesis 23:1-25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 24:53 - 24:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 - 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 143; Hertz p. 90)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

Sarah dies - she was 127 and Abraham mourns his wife. He enters into protracted and formalized public negotiations with the children of Heth (Hittites) to secure a burial place for her, and he buys the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron at an apparently inflated price. Abraham subsequently dispatches his servant to Aram Naharaim (Mesopotamia) to find a suitable wife for Isaac, first administering an oath that the servant not select a Canaanite woman. (Although traditional sources identify this servant as Eliezer, who is explicitly mentioned elsewhere, the marital emissary is not named in the biblical text. He is properly referred to simply as “the servant of Abraham.”)

The servant's prayer for guidance and a divine sign in identifying Isaac's future wife is immediately answered with the appearance of the beautiful and chaste Rebekah, who approaches the well where the servant has stationed himself. In keeping with his prayer, she draws from the well, generously providing water to the servant and his ten camels. Rebekah is identified as the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham's brother. The servant presents gifts to Rebekah and then to her family, to whom he tells the story of what happened at the well.

Rebekah consents to marry Isaac and receives her family's blessing. Isaac and Rebekah meet. Rebekah covers herself with a veil, in a gesture of modesty still reenacted at traditional Jewish weddings (frequently accompanied by the recitation of a verse from this parshah, Genesis 24:60).

Isaac takes his bride “into his mother's tent,” and the bereaved son finds comfort in his marriage. Abraham marries Keturah; that marriage produces six more children. Upon Abraham's death, Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah.

After Abraham's death, God renews His blessing of Isaac. Ishmael dies at the age of 137. The parshah concludes by listing his many descendants, demonstrating the fulfillment of God's earlier blessing of Ishmael as progenitor of a great nation and father of twelve chieftains.

Theme #1: “In the Title Role”

“So Ephron's land in Machpelah, near Mamre - the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field - passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.” (Genesis 23:17-18)

Derash: Study

  1. “There are three places about which the nations of the world cannot taunt the Jews and say, ‘You stole them.' They are the cave at Machpelah, the site of the Temple, and the tomb of Joseph.” (Midrash Beresheit Rabbah)
  2. “Avraham had no need to buy any land. God assured him that the entire land would be his, so why should he buy what is rightfully his? This was one of Avraham's ten tests. God had just promised him the entire land, and now he is forced to spend an exorbitant amount of money to buy a burial plot for Sarah. God wanted to see if Avraham would doubt him, and he did not.” (Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah)
  3. “This chapter came to be viewed in retrospect as a very significant milestone in Israel's remote past. The Promised Land was a spiritual grant from God. But the best practical safeguard in terms that everybody could recognize and accept was a clear legal title to the land… The spot had to be theirs beyond any possibility of dispute…Small wonder, therefore, that tradition had to insist on a title which no lawabiding society would dare to contest and upset.” (E.A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)
  4. “‘Passed' [vayakom - literally, the land ‘rose']: The land underwent an ascension in stature, as it passed from an ordinary person (Ephron) to a king (Abraham).” (Rashi)
  5. “The first emotional death story is when Cain kills his brother Abel… One would expect some reaction by his family… we don't read about Adam and Eve mourning. It is not until the death of Sarah that we are introduced to the Jewish idea of mourning and grieving in the Torah. When Sarah dies, Abraham goes to the Hittites, asking to buy the Cave of Machpelah in which to bury his dead. Ephron, the cave owner, offers Abraham Machpelah for no cost, but Abraham insists on paying the full price of 400 shekels. We are finally given the beginning of a structure, after 22 chapters, on how to handle death.” (Hannah Rubin-Shclansky)

Questions for Discussion

Scripture seems to go out of its way to establish the Jewish people's legitimate claim to the Land of Israel. To what extent is recourse to Scripture legitimate in contemporary geopolitics? Is a biblical claim to the Land of Israel counterproductive? How should Jews respond to Christian supporters of the State of Israel who are largely motivated by the Biblical text?

The accusations anticipated by Midrash Rabbah - that the Jewish people essentially stole the land of Israel - are in considerable contemporary currency. What are our most effective responses to such slanderous assertions? What common responses are simply inaccurate or misplaced?

Rashi implicitly invokes the enhanced sanctity of the Land of Israel. In what ways do we understand the concept of a holy land today? How should this status affect Israeli domestic and foreign policy? What role should diaspora Jews play in the formulation of those policies? What obligations and responsibilities devolve on diaspora Jews by virtue of Israel's “holiness”?

What is the significance of the exorbitantly inflated price that Abraham paid for Ephron's land? How would payment of a fairer, more modest price have changed our reading of this text? What parallels to this outrageous price do we see in Israel's national life today?

What is the significance of Abraham effecting and validating this purchase “in the presence of the Hittites” - in a formal public forum? To what group or organization might we compare the Hittites in the Jewish state's ongoing quest for recognition and equity?

Theme #2: “That's all she wrote”

“Abraham was old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things (bakol).” (Genesis 24:1)

Derash: Study

  1. “The true tzadik (the truly righteous, saintly person) does not pray only on his own behalf, but for everyone else as well. Similarly, he does not find satisfaction in his personal blessings, unless others in general are also blessed… So naturally, when Heaven wishes to bless the tzadik, that blessing is bestowed upon the general populace. That is the significance of this verse: ‘The Lord blessed Abraham bakol - by blessing all, not just him. That is the essence of Abraham's blessing.” (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi)
  2. “Abraham was blessed with perfect fulfillment of bakol - He served God, as it is said: ‘with all [bakol] your heart, with all [bakol] your soul, and with all [bakol] your might.'” (The Seer of Lublin)
  3. “Abraham was blessed with a sense of bakol, with the quality of satisfaction. He was satisfied ‘in all things' and was thus lacking nothing.” (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, Or La-Yesharim)
  4. “Abraham had a daughter, and Bakol was her name.” (Baba Batra 16b)
  5. “‘And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.' That is the short history of his long life. ‘The Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.' What? When he commanded him to slay his son? Yes. He ‘had blessed him in all things.' What? When He took away his wife Sarah? Yes, for, ‘the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.' When you and I, with all our cares, trials, poverty, suffering, and pain shall get to our journey's end, if we have faith like Abraham's, it will be written of each one of us, ‘The Lord had blessed him in all things - blessed him in his troubles, blessed him in those cruel tests of faith… blessed him by sustaining him under them all.'” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermon #2523)

Questions for Discussion

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is famous for his intercessions on behalf of Israel, his prayerful and often argumentative defense of the Jewish people to God. In many ways, his understanding of Abraham as the quintessential tzadik may thus be understood as autobiographical. Where else - in Jewish history or today - do we find models of this expansive approach to blessing?

Jews customarily recite a blessing (Baruch Dayan Emet) in response to a death or upon hearing other sad news. How are times of adversity especially conducive to recognizing the blessings we enjoy? What other Jewish practices are designed to cultivate our awareness of God's beneficence?

Notwithstanding Rev. Spurgeon's homily, is it fair - is it theologically honest - to say that someone who has suffered serial adversity has been “blessed in all things”? Is such thoroughly pervasive and defining blessing ever really possible? Or is Rev. Spurgeon's reading of our verse an accurate reading of Scripture's intent?

Is blessing, as Rabbi Epstein seems to imply, merely a subjective state of mind, a matter of perspective and attitude? If so, what steps can we take to secure blessing for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities?

What motivated the Talmudic reference to Abraham's “daughter” Bakol? In what ways can we convey to our daughters and sons the blessings they represent in our lives? How can we increasingly be a blessing to our families? To our communities? To the Jewish people?

Halachah L'Maaseh

The period between a close relative's death and burial is known as aninut. During this period, mourners are released from all prescriptive religious obligations, making it possible for them - like Abraham - to honor the departed by securing proper arrangements for burial.

Historical Note

Parshat Chayei Sarah, which begins by recording the death of the first matriarch of Israel and the funerary rites and mourning that ensued, is read on October 30, 2010. It was on this date in 1944 that famed teenage diarist Anne Frank was deported from Auschwitz to the death camp at Bergen Belsen.

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