Parashat Chayei Sarah

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Parashat Chayei Sarah

Bereshit – Genesis Chapter 23 verse 1 to Chapter 25 verse 18.


With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

This week’s parashah is Chayei Sarah, the sidrah begins with Avraham mourning for Sarah and seeking a burial place for her. The second part of the sidrah has Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, journeying back to Avraham’s native land in order to find a wife for Isaac, his son. The sidrah concludes with the death of Avraham, and Isaac and Ishmael meet again at his funeral.

Avraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah - - from the children of Heth (possibly Hittites) and it will be a place of burial not only for Sarah, but also for Avraham himself and several generations of his family. What we are reading is the founding narrative of Bereshit 21 Hebron - - as a holy city for us Jews as well as Muslims because both traditions revere Avraham as their spiritual forbear. Muslims call the city al-khalil al Rahman, in honour of Avraham, ‘the beloved of El’ and the burial chamber is surmounted by a synagogue and an adjacent mosque.

Let us read from the Torah, Bereshit - Genesis chapter 23, the first 20 verses sets the scene! The study continues thereafter;

1 “And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

2 And Sarah died in Kiriatharba the same is Hebron () in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

3 And Avraham rose up from before his death, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying:

4 ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.

5 And the children of Heth answered Avraham, saying unto him:

6 ‘Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us; in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre, but that thou mayest bury thy dead.

7 And Avraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth.

8 And he spoke with them, saying: ‘If it be your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he hath, which is in the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place.

10 Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth; and Ephron the Hittite answered Avraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, even of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying:

11 ‘Nay, my lord, hear me: the field give I thee, and the cave that is therein, I give it thee; in the presence of the sons of my people give I it thee; bury thy dead.

12 And Avraham bowed down before the people of the land.

13 And he spoke unto Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: ‘But if thou wilt, I pray thee, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.

14 And Ephron answered Avraham, saying unto him:

15 ‘My lord, hearken unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead.'

16 And Avraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Avraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant.

17 So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah (), which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure 18 unto Avraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city.

19 And after this, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan.

20 And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Avraham for a possession of a burying-place by the children of Heth” Bereshit 23:1-20 (Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Version of the Torah).

We see the Machpelah as it is today

Sadly these day’s, Hebron - - is not a place of peace; for now it is one of the sharpest flashpoints on the West Bank. Hebron is a Palestinian city but it also houses a small Jewish settlement and is a highly contested place of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Jews.

The sidrah’s founding narrative is very different. Avraham believes that his descendants will inherit the land but his belief in no way affects his conduct with the children of Heth. Avraham tells them that he is a “stranger and sojourner” with them and he engages in a lengthy and courteous negotiation prior to purchasing the site he has requested. Avraham, in turn, is treated with great respect by the Hittites, who tell him that he is a “prince of El” among them.

The story is reminiscent of Bereshit 12, when Avraham parted from his nephew, Lot, ‘over a shepherds’ quarrel. Tradition says the quarrel began because Avraham’s shepherds treated the people of the land with courtesy and propriety while Lot’s shepherds grazed their flocks with impunity on land that did not belong to them.

For the Torah, how one responds to others, especially if they are ‘strangers’, is at the heart of the religious life.  When Avraham’s servant Eliezer encounters Rivkah, he knows that she might be the person he is seeking because he recognises in her the qualities he has come to know in Avraham. Eliezer asked only for a sip of water but, like Avraham, Rivkah “hurried” to let him drink as much as he wanted and she then “ran” to the well to provide water also for his camels.

The theme of relating to others could be said regarding Yitzchak - Isaac and Ishmael at the end of the parashah. In the wake of 9/11, I was particularly concerned to help different religious traditions live in peace. We may have been well aware that in rabbinic discourse Ishmael, as father of the Arab peoples, has come to symbolise the Islamic world: religious readers tend to interpret contemporary events in the light of the Torah and would conclude that the conflict between Jews and Muslims is both eternal and immutable.

Obviously there are those who will focus on an apparently minor reference in the sidra that many readers would just overlook. In Bereshit 24:62, as Yitzchak and Rivkah are about to meet, we are told that Yitzchak;

“And Yitzchak came from the way of Beer-lahai-roi; for he dwelt in the land of the South” Bereshit 24:62 (JPS).

In Chapter 25, verse 11 we are told that after Avraham’s death, Elohim, blessed be He, blessed his son Yitzchak and Yitzchak “settled at Be’er-lahai-roi.” The text offers no further explanation, but we do know that Be’er-lahai-roi was indeed significant: it was at the heart of the story of Hagar, as is clearly recorded in Bereshit 16:14.

After being harshly treated by Sarah, Hagar fled to the wilderness, where an angel of Elohim spoke to her by “a spring of water”. Hagar believed that she had seen Elohim and lived, and referred to Elohim as El-roi, so the spring was named Be’er-lahai-roi, the well where Hagar had seen and lived. (Be’er is a spring or well, lahai refers to living and roi to seeing.)

Yitzchak’s choice of Be’er-lahai-roi as a place to live now becomes truly remarkable and we know that Yitzchak’s first visit to Be’er-lahai-roi was to restore Hagar to Avraham, following the death of Sarah. Secondly, it is generally said that Avraham had visited Ishmael on two occasions after he had been sent away.

On his second visit, Ishmael was away, but his wife gave Avraham food and drink. The midrash then says, “Avraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things.” When Ishmael returned, his wife told him what had taken place and “Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.” Father and son were reconciled and the presence of Yitzchak and Ishmael at Avraham’s funeral indicates that they too were reunited.

We need to remember that is were Muslim’s who protected as from the Roman Catholic’s murdering us when many os is lived in Spain in the middle Ages:

“Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule were hardly happy with their second-class status, for the most part they accepted their inequality and subordination with resignation. As long as they were allowed to live in security and practice their religion without interference, this was “toleration” in the medieval sense of the word thus they were generally content”. (Mark R. Cohen).

There is no doubt that this story has blessed consequences for all as in these days; indeed, there was conflict and separation, but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Avraham loved both his sons and was laid to rest by both. Thus there is hope for the future when we look at this story of the past - thank You Elohim, Blessed be His Sanctified Name!

Always remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.


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