by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
Rabbi Dr. Sacks is Chief Rabbi of England since 1991, a member of the House of Lords since 2009. He has authored many books on Judaic thought, appears regularly in the British media and has kindly allowed us to post his essay on the Sabbath Torah reading each week.
There are many types of hero in Judaism, but few as majestic as the man who first heard the call of G-d, and began the journey we still continue.
One of the most striking features about Judaism in comparison with, say, Christianity or Islam, is that it is impossible to answer the question: Who is the central character of the drama of faith? In both of the other Abrahamic monotheisms the answer is obvious. In Judaism, it is anything but. Is it Abraham, the founder of the covenantal family? Is it Jacob, who gave his name Israel to our people and its land? Moses, the liberator and lawgiver? David, the greatest of Israel’s kings? Solomon, the builder of the Temple and the author of its literature of wisdom? Isaiah, the poet laureate of hope? And among women there is a similar richness and diversity.
It is as if the birth of monotheism – the uncompromising unity of the creative, revelatory and redemptive forces at work in the universe – created space for the full diversity of the human condition to emerge.
So Abraham, whose life draws to its close in this week’s parasha, is an individual rather than an archetype. Neither Isaac nor Jacob nor anyone else for that matter is quite like him. And what strikes us is the sheer serenity of the end of his life. In a series of vignettes, we see him, wise and forward looking, taking care of the future, tying up the loose ends of a life of deferred promises.
First, he makes the first acquisition of a plot in the land he has been assured will one day belong to his descendants. Then, leaving nothing to chance, he arranges a wife for Isaac, the son he knows will be heir to the covenant. Astonishingly, he remains full of vigour and takes a new wife, by whom he has six children. Then, to avoid any possible contest over succession or inheritance, he gives all six gifts and then sends them away before he dies. Finally we read of his demise, the most serene description of death in the Torah:
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. [25: 8]
One is almost tempted to forget how much heartache he has suffered in his life: the wrenching separation from “his father’s house,” the conflicts and aggravations of his nephew Lot, the two occasions on which he has to leave the land because of famine, both of which cause him to fear for his life; the long drawn-out wait for a son, the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, and the double trial of having to send Ishmael away and seemingly almost to lose Isaac also.
Somehow we sense in Abraham the beauty and power of a faith that places its trust in G-d so totally that there is neither apprehension nor fear. Abraham is not without emotion. We sense it in his anguish at the displacement of Ishmael and his protest against the apparent injustice of the destruction of Sodom. But he places himself in G-d’s hands. He does what is incumbent on him to do, and he trusts G-d to do what He says He will do. There is something sublime about his faith.
Yet the Torah – even in this week’s parasha, after the supreme trial of the binding of Isaac – gives us a glimpse of the continuing challenge to his faith. Sarah has died. Abraham has nowhere to bury her. Time after time, G-d has promised him the land: as soon as he arrives in Canaan G-d says:
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” [12: 7]
Then again in the next chapter after he has separated from Lot:
Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” [13: 17]
And two chapters later:
He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” [15: 7]
And so on, seven times in all. Yet now he owns not one square inch in which to bury his wife. This sets the scene for one of the most complex encounters in Bereishit, in which Abraham negotiates for the right to buy a field and a cave.
It is impossible in a brief space to do justice to the undertones of this fascinating exchange. Here is how it opens:
Then Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Hear us, my lord. You are a prince of G-d among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
Abraham signals his relative powerlessness. He may be wealthy. He has large flocks and herds. Yet he lacks the legal right to own land. He is “an alien and a stranger.” The Hittites, with exquisite diplomacy, reply with apparent generosity but deflect his request. By all means, they say, bury your dead, but for that, you do not need to own land. We will allow you to bury her, but the land will remain ours. Even then they do not commit themselves. They use a double negative: “None of us will refuse . . .” It is the beginning of an elaborate minuet. Abraham, with a politeness to equal theirs, refuses to be sidetracked:
Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”
He takes their vague commitment and gives it sharp definition. If you agree that I may bury my dead, then you must agree that I should be able to buy the land in which to do so. And if you say, no one will refuse me, then surely you can have no objection to persuading the man who owns the field I wish to buy.
Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
Again, an elaborate show of generosity that is nothing of the kind. Three times Ephron says, “I give it to you,” yet he does not mean it and Abraham knows he does not mean it.
Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.” Ephron answered Abraham, “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you? Bury your dead.”
Far from giving the field away, Ephron is insisting on a vastly inflated price, while seeming to dismiss it as a mere trifle: “What is that between me and you?” Abraham immediately pays the price, and the field is finally his.
What we see in this brief but beautifully nuanced passage is the sheer vulnerability of Abraham. For all that the local townsmen seem to pay him deference, he is entirely at their mercy, he has to use all his negotiating skill, and in the end he must pay a large sum for a small piece of land. It all seems an impossibly long way from the vision G-d has painted for him of the entire country one day becoming a home for his descendants. Yet Abraham is content. The next chapter begins with the words, “Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed him in all things” [24: 1].
That is the faith of an Abraham. The man promised as many children as the stars of the sky has one child to continue the covenant. The man promised the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates” [15: 18] has acquired one field and a tomb. But that is enough. The journey has begun. Abraham knows “It is not for you to complete the task.” He can die content.
One phrase shines through the negotiation with the Hittites. They acknowledge Abraham, the alien and stranger, as “a prince of G-d in our midst.” The contrast with Lot could not be greater. Recall that Lot had abandoned his distinctiveness. He had made his home in Sodom. His daughters had married local men. He “sat in the gate” of the town [19: 1], implying that he had become one of the elders or judges. Yet when he resisted the people who were intent on abusing his visitors, they said: “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge!” [19: 9].
Lot, who assimilated, was scorned. Abraham, who fought and prayed for his neighbours, but maintained his distance and difference, was respected. So it was then. So it is now. Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Non-Jews disrespect Jews who disrespect Judaism.
So, at the end of his life, we see Abraham, dignified, satisfied, serene. There are many types of hero in Judaism, but few as majestic as the man who first heard the call of G-d, and began the journey we still continue.