Parshat Chayey Sara: The Torah’s treatment of biographical material

And Sara died in Kiryat Arba which is Chevron and Avraham came to eulogize Sara and to cry for her. (Sefer Beresheit 23:2)

The parasha opens with the death of Sara. It describes in detail Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot for Sara. This plot was to become the resting place for Avraham and the rest of the patriarchs and matriarchs with the exception of Rachel. The Torah is very concise. It does not include any information or narratives that are not fundamental to its objective. The Torah contains little biographical information about Avraham and even less regarding Sara. Therefore, it is astounding that the Torah should include a detailed description of Avraham’s negotiations for a burial plot. Furthermore, this account is one of the last instances in which the Torah discusses Avraham. Following this account, the Torah describes Avraham’s successful effort to secure an appropriate wife to his son, Yitzchak. With the conclusion of the description of that incident, the Torah completes its account of Avraham’s life. This creates the impression that Avraham was at the end of his life. However, Avraham lived for thirty-eight years after the death of Sara. [1] The Torah reveals nothing about the last four decades of his life. Why does the Torah regard the purchase of this burial plot as so much more important than any other incident in the last four decades of Avraham’s life?

The Sages of the Talmud and the commentaries on the Torah provide many insights into the section of the parasha describing Avraham’s negotiations for and purchase of his burial plot. However, in order to identify the objective of the Torah in presenting this narrative, it is essential to focus on the overall message or impression created by the account. In turn, the identification of this message requires some background information.

I am an alien and a citizen with you. Give to me a burial property among you and I will bury my departed one from before me. (Sefer Beresheit 23:4)

The significance of the purchase of a burial plot

As the parasha opens, Avraham asks the people living in Chevron – the descendants of Chaty to sell to him a plot that he will designate as his family burial grounds. Avraham feels that he cannot merely purchase this plot. He requires the prior acquiescence of the community. The Torah does not explicitly explain the reason for this requirement; however, the manner in which Avraham presents his request indicates the issue involved. Avraham begins by describing himself as an alien and as a citizen of the community. Seemingly, these descriptions contradict one another; however, Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir – RaShbaM and many others provide a simple explanation of Avraham’s description of himself. Avraham acknowledged to the members of the community that he had not been born into their community, and instead, had immigrated from another land. In this sense, he was an alien. However, he had made Canaan his home and was now a citizen of the Land and of their community. [2] In short, he argued that despite his foreign origins, he deserved to be treated as a member of the community. Nachmanides and others explain that it is evident from this appeal that it was customary to exclude foreigners from burial within the settlement of the community. [3] It is not difficult to anticipate the reason for such a regulation. The members of the community were wary of any claim that might be made against their right to their land. They wished to preserve their claim and pass it as a legacy to their descendants. The most powerful evidence of a community’s connection to a geographical local is the presence of the graves of generations of ancestors. It is impossible to dispute the historical connection of a people to an area, if their ancestors are buried there. However, the corollary of this proposition is that no foreigner should be buried in the area. The presence of graves of foreigners weakens the claim of the community, that it alone, has historical roots in the land. [4] Therefore, Avraham realized that he would require the community’s agreement to his proposal to purchase a burial plot and he recognized that this approval could only be secured through his acceptance by the community into its midst.

Listen to us our master. You are a prince of G-d among us. In the finest of our burial sites bury your departed. No man from among us will withhold his burial site from you – preventing you from burying you departed. (Sefer Beresheit 23:6)

The response of the citizens of Chevron to Avraham’s request

In this context, there are two important elements in the response of citizens of Chevron to Avraham’s request. The first element is that they agreed to Avraham’s request and even actively assisted him in securing the plot he desired. The second element is the reason they provided for their acquiescence.

Avraham described himself to the citizens of Chevron as a foreigner who has settled among them. In responding to Avraham’s request and explaining their reason for agreeing to assist him, the descendents of Chayt proclaimed that Avraham is a prince of the Lord among them. RaShbam explains that in this pronouncement, the citizens of Chayt were making a direct reference to Avraham’s description of himself. He described himself as a foreigner who had come to join their community. They rejected this description. They responded that Avraham is not merely a member of their community.[5] He is Prince and leader. Therefore, he has the right to a burial plot among the leaders on the community. In other words, Avraham had petitioned the community for acceptance and it responded that no petition was required; Avraham should merely exercise his right as a prince among the people.

This exchange captures the theme of the narrative. The narrative is a description of the great esteem that the descendents of Cheyt accorded to Avraham and their acknowledgement of his supremacy and even sovereignty over them. In other words, Avraham had become the acknowledged leader of the community without seeking this position and without resorting to force or physical conquest.

This theme is sometimes obscured by the rich commentary on the verses provide by the Midrash and the commentaries. But if these are set aside and the account is reviewed independently, its theme emerges.

• Avraham describes himself as a foreigner who has come to settle in Canaan. The people of Chevorn reject this description and proclaim that Avraham is their leader.

• Avraham asks for the people of Chevron to allow him to purchase a burial plot. The people respond that he need merely select the plot he desires and take possession of it.

• Avraham asks to be introduced to Efron. He asks Efron to allow him to purchase a cave at the edge of a field that he owns. But Efron rejects this request. He insists on giving the plot to Avraham without remuneration. He offers Avraham not only the cave but also the entire field.

• At the conclusion of the negotiation with Efron, the cave and field become the uncontested possession of Avraham.

This discussion began with a question. Why is this account of Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot included in the Torah? We have now identified and outlined the message of the account. This allows the question to be revised. Why is it important for the Torah to describe this accomplishment? Why does the Torah describe through this incident the high regard of the people of Chevron for Avraham?

The fulfillment of Hashem’s promises to Avraham

This question can be answered on two levels. First, at a basic level, the question can be answered in the context of the Torah’s account of Avraham’s life. In other words, the importance of the Torah’s account of this incident can be appreciated through identifying and appreciating its place in the Torah’s presentation of Avraham’s life. The account of Avraham’s life begins in Parshat Lech Lecha. There, Hashem directs Avraham to leave his land and birthplace and to travel to an unidentified land. Hashem promises Avraham that He will form a great nation from him, bless him, his fame will be great, he will be successful in his endeavors and his greatness will be acknowledged by the most respected families of the land. [6] As the narrative of Avraham’s life comes to a close, the Torah provides an accounting of the degree to which these promises have been fulfilled. The first step in the creation of a nation has been accomplished. Yitzchak has been born to Avraham and he will become the second patriarch. Avraham has been successful in his endeavors and accumulated great wealth. Avraham’s interactions with the citizens of Chevron reveal that the promise of fame, recognition, and acceptance has been achieved. Avraham is regarded by the sons of Chayt as a prince of the people. Efron is flattered to have the opportunity to associate with and serve the great man – Avraham. The people of Chevron are eager to assist Avraham in securing a burial plot. All of the details of the Torah’s account of Avraham’s acquisition of his burial plot demonstrate that he has achieved the fame and acceptance promised by Hashem.

Of course, this raises a question: why was it important that Avraham achieve fame and acceptance? Avraham’s life mission was to teach humanity the ultimate truth. The Universe was created by Hashem and He is its ruler. He relates to humanity and guides it through His providence. All idols are false and only Hashem deserves our worship. Maimonides explains that Avraham fulfilled his mission. He reached tens of thousands of people and these people became his followers. [7] Avraham’s fame was as a teacher and as a spiritual leader. His acceptance was not an expression of the triumph of a charismatic personality. His acceptance demonstrated the triumph of his ideas. His truth was accepted, and with the acceptance of this truth, the teacher became the leader of the people. Avraham did not achieve his status as prince of land through the conquest of arms but through the triumph of truth!

Avraham’s success as a precursor to the Messianic era

However, with this understanding, we can also answer our question on a deeper level. One of the fundamental convictions of the Jewish people is that our exile, persecution, and suffering will come to a permanent end with the advent of the Messianic era. How will this occur? How will the Messiah bring about our redemption? Maimonides explains that the Messiah will bring all of Bnai Yisrael back to Hashem. He will also succeed in sharing the message of the Torah with the nations of the world and they too will accept its truth. [8]

This is an amazing claim. It requires a remarkably powerful imagination to envision the nations of our Earth coming together and accepting a single truth. Nation has conquered nation from before the recording of history. Conquest has come at the edge of the sword, at gunpoint, or through the use of horrible weapons. But few ideas have triumphed over nations and united them. And in the few instances in which an idea has conquered a people, it was aided by force of arms. The proposition that an idea promoted by a teacher – the Messiah – can triumph over ignorance, prejudice, and hatred is beyond the limits of our imagination. Yet, this is the promise of the Torah through its prophets.

The Torah responds to our doubts and sheer disbelief with its account of the life of Avraham. He was an outsider, a foreigner in a strange land. He had no family. He had no influence. But over the course of his lifetime, he revolutionized human perceptions of G-d and His Universe. Through the compelling truth of his teachings, without coercion, and without bloodshed, he rose to greatness and was accepted as the land’s teacher. His story proves that the unbelievable, the unimaginable can occur. Avraham was able to triumph through the teaching of truth. His accomplishment is the precursor to the triumph of the Messiah.

1. When Yitzchak was born, Sara was 90 years old and Avraham was 100 years old. Therefore, Avraham was ten years older than Sara. Sara died at the age of 127. Avraham was 137 at this point. He died at the age of 175. Therefore, he survived Sara by 38 years.

2. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:4.

3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:4.

4. This thinking is finds expression in modern Jewish history. In 1929 the Arab community in Chevron rioted and massacred the Jewish population. In the process of removing any Jewish presence from the city not only were all Jewish facilities destroyed or desecrated, but the cemetery was dismantled. Grave markers were removed and used as paving stones. This was not an isolated behavior. Before Yerushalayim was reunited in 1967, the Old City was controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan. Under Jordanian rule virtually every indication of Jewish presence in the Old City was eradicated. These behaviors reflect the issue confronted by Avraham. The Arabs wished to eliminate any indication of a historical Jewish presence in the area. Thereby, they would emphasize the claims of their community to an exclusive historical connection with the area.

5. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:6.

6. Chizkuni, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:3

7. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3.

8. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 11:4.