Toward Shabbat – Lessons from Chayei Sarah

The Torah portion begins by informing us of the death of beloved Sarah, and then Abraham going to the children of Chet and asking them to approach Efron, the landowner to purchase a piece of land in Chevron.(Ch.23). Efron offers him the land for free, an indication for Efron’s respect for him, but Avraham insists on paying rather than accepting the favor? Why does Avraham reject Efron’s offer and why did he assign the children of Chet to approach Efron rather than going to him directly?


Our Sages look at the scriptural story and extract an important ethical lesson from this incident. Since this would be a model for the future and would establish certain attitudes concerning our relation to the land of Israel, Avraham rather than demand, went out of his way not only to legitimately purchase the land but to make it known that he was purchasing the land. Instead of making a private deal with Efron, he asked the people of Chet to approach Efron. In this way the entire community would be aware of his intention rather than it being a private exercise.


Avraham wanted to show the people of his generation, and by so doing the people of all generations, that you do not use the word of G-d as a means to gain advantage over others. G-d’s promise to Abraham that his children would inherit this land does not give carte-blanche to take advantage of others (to hide behind the divine word and impose G-d’s will). G-d can take care of the fulfillment of the promise at the appropriate time. The human responsibility, having been blessed with a G-dly promise, is to behave in a G-dly manner, so that people will see an elevated human character, admire, and want to emulate this holy behavior, and come closer to such a conception of G-d.

Avraham insisted on paying for the land, to avoid all charges later that he used some sort of trickery or imposed his position to obtain the land. Every acquisition must be done ethically with both parties acquiescing rather than by utilizing power or trickery to obtain an advantage. The same holds true today!

Avraham’s manner of acquiring the ‘Cave of Machpelah’ in Chevron (Which our commentators link with the concept of ‘Chaver/Union’-the union with the Garden of Eden), is the ultimate lesson in how to interpret a G-dly promise. G-d’s promise does not give us license to behave unethically. G-d’s promise only gives us a glimpse of ultimate reality. Until ultimate reality unfolds, it is the responsibility of those who have been bestowed with G-d’s promise to behave in a G-dly manner. The way to behave in a G-dly (humane/ethical) manner is to leave the matter of exercising power to the Omnipotent and the exercising of ‘mentshlichkeit’ to human beings. This may create great complexity to secure land that may benefit us in important ways, but Avraham’s behavior makes clear that ethical behavior is always the optimal path in our decisions, even if it means sacrificing our maximal desires. This takes great faith, but it is a prime value in our tradition.” Not by faith and not by Power, but by my Spirit alone, saith the Lord.” (Zechariah, 4:6).


Now, what is the significance of this piece of land in Chevron, for Avraham to have taken such pains to acquire it and for the Torah to give such a lengthy description of this acquisition? In addition to modelling the proper ethical way to make a purchase, the Midrash states that the Holy Land is the place chosen to be where the consciousness of the source of worldly blessings is the highest. The Holy Presence permeates the land, and Chevron, is the place of ‘JOINING-(CHAVER)’ where heaven meets earth. Therefore, the holy ancestors are buried there, and this place is identified by the Midrash as ‘the entrance to the Garden of Eden,’ signifying the JOINING of heaven and earth. We find the theme of the ‘uniting of the opposites’ here as we observe that our ancestors were buried in pairs, husband, and wife together. The concept of pairing partners suggests that through ‘joining,’ each of the partners can achieve what neither could achieve alone. They support each other with great spiritual sensitivity and appreciate each other’s goals. Their spiritual well-being leads to an acutalization of their unique gifts in this world. In these marriages of the ancestors the Presence of G-d made itself palpable and they were buried at the place of union of heaven and earth.


On a national level, says the Sfat Emet, this is the task of Israel, to bring everything in this world back to its source, to recognize G-d in everything; to bridge the gulf between the material and the spiritual. Thus, everyone buried in the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron had a twofold purpose; they made their physical activities spiritual, and engaged in spiritual activities as well, such as prayer, study, and good deeds.

The Midrash says that: “Abraham discovered this cave during the sojourn of the three visitors at Mamre. The Midrash continues that when Avraham went to slaughter a calf for the three visitors, the calf ran off into the darkness of the cave. When Abraham followed the calf, he found Adam and Eve lying in their graves with lamps over their heads, and a sweet odor filled the air. After that Abraham was eager to have this cave for the burial place of Sarah. Adam was created from the red clay of fields near the cave. It is said that there are seven gates to the Garden of Eden and this cave is the outermost gate. Adam, burying Eve’s body was overwhelmed by a sweet, divine fragrance and tried to recover his lost home by digging deeper. He was digging his way to the entrance of the Gardn of Eden when he was commanded to stop.” The purchase of this field was counted amongst the ten trials of Abraham, as he made the sale public and legal, doing it correctly (ethically), even as he faced the wiles of Efron. This place retains its holiness for the Jewish people till this very day as it was used as the burial plot for the righteous Sarah, and the ancestors.


Another important lesson in our Parsha brought from our Sages is taught to us through the behavior of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, who is asked to choose a bride for Isaac. We learn here that the most important trait that was most suitable to enter the family of Abraham and Sarah was the trait of KINDNESS. This trait is the one that would fit in most assuredly into Abraham and Sarah’s family. Eliezer, while observing Rivka feeding the sheep observes that she had a well of kindness within and the unfolding of events confirms his choice. Through his strong faith he knew that Divine Providence would lend a guiding hand here allowing him to single out the virtuous bride to be. He then proceeded to use perceptive communication to Rivka’s family to effectively achieve his goal. Thus, through this story Eliezer also teaches us to know to whom you are speaking and how to speak to them. Any relationship requires perceptive communication to succeed. One must consider the perspectives and preferences of our partner, not only of ourselves. By relating thusly, Eliezer instead of being considered a fraud, was respected in the house of Betuel and successfully completed his mission.

May you all have a sweet Shabbat!

Blessings, and Love,
Rabbi Mel