Homeward Bound

After this Avraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpeylah, before Mamrai which is Hevron, in the Land of Cana’an.  (Sefer Beresheit 23:19)

Love of the Land of Israel

The opening of Parshat Chayey Sarah describes the events following the death of Sarah.  Avraham purchases the cave of Machpeylah and the surrounding field to serve as a burial place for Sarah, himself, and his family.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra comments on this incident:

This section is included (in the Torah) to make known the excellence of the Land of Israel over all other lands for the living and for the departed.  Furthermore, it fulfills the words of Hashem to Avraham that (it) will be his as a portion.[1]

According to Ibn Ezra, this account includes two important elements.  First, it demonstrates the significance of the Land of Israel.  This is achieved through describing Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpeylah and its field for a burial site.  Ibn Ezra adds that the Land of Israel is significant for the living.  It is the home and legacy of our people.  It is significant also for the departed.  One should be buried in the Land of Israel.[2]  Second, in this account, Hashem’s promise to Avraham that the Land of Israel will be the possession of his descendants is, to some extent, fulfilled.

Ramban – Nachmanides – objects to Ibn Ezra’s comments.  Ibn Ezra claims that the account testifies to the excellence of the Land of Israel.  Ramban responds that this would be true if Sarah had died outside of the Land of Israel and Avraham brought her body to the Land of Israel for burial.  This didn’t happen.  She died in the Land of Israel.  Of course, Avraham wished to bury her where she died.

Ibn Ezra also claims that this event was a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham.  Ramban objects that Hashem promised Avraham that the land would belong to his descendants.  It would not be possessed by Avraham.  Avraham’s successful purchase of a portion of the Land was not a fulfillment of this promise.[3]

And Avraham arose from before his departed and the spoke to the people of Hait saying: I am a stranger and a dweller among you.  Give to me a burial portion with you and I will bury my departed from before me. (Sefer Beresheit 23:3-4)

Avraham appeals for a burial plot

The first step in understanding Ibn Erza’s position is to consider the above passages.  Avraham wishes to purchase a burial plot for Sarah.  It emerges that he has selected a specific parcel of land.  He knows the identity of the owner.  Nonetheless, in the above passage, Avraham does not address the owner.  He is addressing the citizens of Hevron – the people of Hait.

Why did he address his request to the entire community?  Why did he not approach and appeal to the owner of the parcel?  It is apparent from his petition to the inhabitants of the city that he was asking for something unusual.  The agreement of the parcel owner would not suffice.  He required the community’s approval.  What was controversial about Avraham’s request?

Avraham’s status

Avraham described himself to the people as a stranger who dwells among them.  With this description, Avraham explained his reason for appealing to the entire population of the town.  What is the significance of this description?  Rashbam explains Avraham’s message.  Avraham was an immigrant. He did not have ancestral roots in this land.  His family did not have a burial portion in it.  He had made this land his home and wished to establish a burial portion.  There, he will bury Sarah; he will rest there, and his descendants will, there, be interred.  He will create an enduring connection with the land.  A stranger’s permanent possession of a portion of the land required the approval of its citizens.  He was asking to create an everlasting bond with the land that the community regarded as its own exclusive legacy.

In other words, if Avraham had wished to purchase a plot of land to cultivate, the issue would not have been as sensitive. Land for cultivation is bought and sold. It changes hands over time.  Ownership for commercial use does not represent an enduring connection with the land.  The purchase of a burial plot creates permanence.  It will never be sold.  It will belong to the family for all time. Before speaking to the owner of the parcel, Avraham needed the approval of the community.[4]

Listen to us, our master.  You are a great prince in our midst.  In the finest of our burial grounds bury your departed. None among us will withhold his burial plot from you from burying your departed.  (Sefer Beresheit 23:6)

The response to Avraham

In this passage, the people of the community respond to Avraham.  They are solicitous. However, according to Radak, a careful reading of the passage reveals that they did not completely acquiesce to his request.  They responded that he could bury Sarah in one of their own burial sites. They assured Avraham that any member of the community will be honored to make his family’s burial portion available for Sarah’s interment.  In other words, they initially resisted his request to own a burial portion.[5]  Based on Rashbam’s comments, we understand this response.  Avraham made an extraordinary request.  He wished to create an everlasting connection with the land they regarded as their homeland.  Initially, the people resisted.[6]

And Avraham listened to Efron. Avraham measured out for Efron the silver that he had mentioned in the ears of the people of Hait – four hundred silver shekel coins – accepted in commercial transactions. (Sefer Beresheit 23:16)

And the field and the cave within it were established as Avraham’s – as a burial possession from the people of Hait.  (Sefer Beresheit 23:20)

Based on this understanding of the negotiations between Avraham and the community, we can explain another comment of Ibn Ezra.  Avraham succeeded in securing a burial portion.  Ibn Ezra comments that Avraham’s ownership of this parcel as a burial possession was only achieved with Sarah’s burial.[7]  This is a confusing comment.  Of course, in order to be a family burial plot, someone must be interred in it.  What is Ibn Ezra’s point?

The above discussion explains this comment.  Avraham was introduced to Efron, the owner of the parcel he wished to purchase.  They agreed upon a price and Avraham paid Efron for the parcel.  Ibn Ezra is explaining that this transaction did not provide Avraham with the degree of ownership he sought.  It did not confirm that the land was his permanently.  He had not yet acted in a manner that expressed the enduring nature of his possession.  Avraham achieved this higher degree of ownership by performing, before the people of the community, an act that demonstrated his absolute and permanent ownership.  This act was Sarah’s burial.  The people’s acquiescence to this action and its implications conferred on Avraham absolute ownership.[8]  In other words, with the burial, Avraham demonstrated and the people affirmed that this land acquisition was not for cultivation. This land will never be sold again.  Avraham’s ownership will be everlasting.

Avraham’s connection to the Land of Israel

This discussion resolves Ramban's first criticism. Ibn Ezra is not proving the importance of the Land of Israel from Sarah’s burial there.  His proof is from Avraham's insistence on interring her in his own burial portion.  His objective was not to merely bury Sarah.  He wished to create a permanent burial portion for Sarah, himself and their descendants. It was important to him that his family be permanently associated with the land and that the land be recognized as their legacy.  His efforts to achieve this association demonstrate the importance of the Land of Israel.

Avraham’s behavior also demonstrates that a connection with the land, even in death, is important. Why is burial in the Land of Israel meaningful?

Burial in the Land of Israel

A person wishes to be buried in the place that will be the home of his descendants. Burial in the Land of Israel expresses the belief that it is our home.  Our life in exile is an interlude.  We will return to our true home.

Avraham’s conduct expressed this belief.  He purchased this land knowing Hashem’s promise that his descendants will possess the Land will not be fulfilled for generations. If he had lacked complete faith in his descendants’ ultimate possession of the land, he would have agreed to bury Sarah in someone else's burial portion.

Recognition of our connection to the Land of Israel

Ramban also objects to Ibn Ezra’s comment that this episode represents a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham that his descendants will possess the Land of Israel.  Ramban points out that this promise was to be fulfilled through Avraham’s descendants.  Avraham’s successful acquisition of a burial plot was not relevant to this promise.

Our discussion suggests that Ibn Ezra would respond that Avraham’s acquisition was relevant to Hashem’s promise.  In allowing this purchase, the community acknowledged that Avraham’s descendants would dwell in the land.  The promise of possession was fulfilled in the future with the conquest of the land. However, with this acquisition, an element of the promise was realized. Avraham succeeded is securing an acknowledgment which the nations of the world deny our people in our times – our everlasting connection to the Land of Israel.

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:19.

[2] See Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 5:11. “The Sages commented: 'Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael will have his sins forgiven as Isaiah 33:24 states: 'The inhabitant shall not say 'I am sick.' The people who dwell there shall be forgiven their sins.'  Even one who walks four cubits there will merit the world to come and one who is buried there receives atonement as if the place in which he is buried is an altar of atonement as Deuteronomy 32:43 states: 'His land will atone for His people.' In contrast, the prophet, Amos [7:17, used the expression] 'You shall die in an impure land' as a prophecy of retribution.  There is no comparison between the merit of a person who lives in Eretz Yisrael and ultimately, is buried there and one whose body is brought there after his death. Nevertheless, great Sages would bring their dead there. Take an example, from our Patriarch, Jacob, and Joseph, the righteous.”

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:19. Ramban agrees with Ibn Ezra that the Land of Israel is enormously significant. His dispute with Ibn Ezra is over whether this account expresses that message.

[4] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:4. See also comments of Ramban.

[5] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:6.  According to Radak, this response does not reflect reluctance to provide Avraham with his own burial portion.  The people did not fully understand his request and believed they were fulfilling it. He could choose from any of theirs; the owner would be honored to share with him.  Avraham continued to dialog with them and explained his request.  He was seeking his own portion.

[6] Rashabam interprets their response differently.  He explains that they offered Avraham the privilege of burying Sarah in the choicest of burial grounds.  They allowed for her to be buried in the grounds reserved for the families of their princes.

[7] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:19.

[8] See also Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:18-20.