By Rabbi Josh Weinberg November 13 2020 – כ”ו במרחשוון תשפ”א
This week’s parasha begins with the death of Sarah. After Sarah’s death, Abraham insists on purchasing a burial plot. He is offered one for free by Ephron the Hittite, but insists on paying for it himself. Sometimes the Torah skips over years and even decades in a few short verses, but here the narrative spends an unusual amount of time and verse to the negotiation of the purchase of this burial plot. This raises the question as to why Abraham insisted on owning the cave himself. It seems clear that Abraham needed to pay for it and not receive it for free because he wanted to be a legal owner among the locals, to create a legally recognized entity, and not be an alien-stranger borrowing space in their private graveyards.
Abraham may have feared that had he taken Ephron’s offer the giver may have meant for it to be a matanah al menat lehahzir (a gift made on condition that it be returned— as mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 41b). He thus requests Ephron to take his money first (Genesis 23:13), and only afterwards will he bury his dead.
Whether or not those were the real reasons behind this transpiring of events in the story, Abraham demonstrates vision and leadership. He understood the critical importance of his actions as they would pave the way for the future.
This week the world lost a truly great sage. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l served as the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain (1991-2013) and was one of the greatest and most prolific writers and teachers in contemporary times.
Commenting on Genesis, Rabbi Sacks brilliantly points out that there were two promises repeatedly made by God to Abraham: one was the promise of all the land of Canaan; the second was that he would be the father of many nations. But, as Rabbi Sacks explains in his book Lessons in Leadership:
“God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, ‘Jewish Grandchildren.’”
That is what leaders understand. This is what made Abraham the first Jewish leader. Leaders take responsibility for creating the conditions through which God’s purposes can be fulfilled. They are not passive but active – even in old age, like Abraham in Parashat Hayei Sarah.”
Rabbi Sacks was one of the great teachers about leadership and morality. He taught that “Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.” He surely has left a tremendous legacy behind him having inspired innumerable leaders and thinkers – Jews and non-Jews alike. Many in our movement have strong feelings about his legacy because of his refusal to attend the British Jewish pluralistic conclave known as Limmud, and having said quite challenging things about the Reform Movement However, his scholarship and lessons have much to offer us nonetheless.
Rabbi Sacks taught us that leaders must recognize that it is upon them to change the status quo, take responsibility to lead a transition of priorities, and adapt to changing circumstances.
There are some who regard Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of the Machpelah in present-day Hebron as the critical foundation for our people’s connection and presence in the entire Land of Israel. Because of Abraham’s initial purchase of land, Jews have sustained a presence there for 3600 years.
Others see the situation in today’s reality and believe that, despite our biblical narrative and ancient connection, our presence there presents a conflict with our values. Therefore – however painful it may be – we have to prioritize our values of a Jewish and democratic State over the importance of fulfilling God’s promise that we occupy all of the Land.
In his 2009 book Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century, Rabbi Sacks articulated a clear understanding of the purpose of our existence as a Jewish People and our lasting legacy.
“Judaism is, to use Nietzche’s phrase, a sustained transvaluation of values. It is the code of a nation that would be called , through its history, to show that civilizations survive not through strength but through the care they show for the weak, not by wealth, but because of the help they give to the poor. Nations become invulnerable by caring for the vulnerable. These are deeply paradoxical propositions, and the only thing that can be said in their favour is that they are true. The people of the covenant were never numerous. The Holy Land was never large. The Israelites, later known as the Jews, were attacked by the greatest empires ever to have bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, and they outlived them all. The superpowers of history disappeared into the pages of history while Jews continue to sing Am Yisrael Chai – ‘the Jewish People lives’. None of this I believe was for the sake of the Jews alone, or Judaism alone, but to give hope to the hopeless, dignity to humanity, and moral meaning and purpose to the human story.”
One could say that the story of the Jewish People began with Abraham’s embrace of the covenant and his entering into the Promised Land. One could also state that the story begins this week, in chapter 23, when Abraham stakes a claim to our Land. What I find more interesting than the debate about where our story originated is who will write the next chapter of our people’s history and which values will lead with hope, dignity, and moral meaning.