Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Hayyei Sarah 5758
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 22, 1997 22 Heshvan 5758
This week's comment has been written by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman, senior vice president of the Seminary
This week's Torah portion, Haye Sarah, provides us with yet another ancient episode that eventually contributed to the molding of the mythic consciousness of our people in a profound way. It begins with the death of Sarah and continues on with a lengthy description of the legal and business arrangements necessary for Abraham's acquisition of land for Sarah's burial. Abraham's status in the land of Canaan is that of ger v'toshav, a resident alien, and though a man of great substance, even a person of renown, one honored in the community, his legal status required that he obtain special permission both from the owner of the land and from the community as a whole to buy and to own property. Members of the native clans were reluctant to confer full rights even to resident aliens — especially the right to land ownership which conceivably might deplete the holdings of the progeny of those currently blessed with political control.
Abraham obtains permission to buy the field and the burial cave that it contains. The text makes no explicit comment about Abraham's discomfort at the process which required humbling himself before the residents of Kiryat Arba in order to acquire a small piece of property.
Be that as it may, as soon as Sarah is properly buried, Abraham immediately begins the process of securing the future of his destiny by attempting to assure a proper marriage for his son Isaac, and thus the potential for his own progeny. Only then can the covenant with God become real and everlasting; for the promise to Abraham was that his descendants will inherit the land.
Abraham sends his servant to his ancestral home, to Aram Naharayim for the search. The Canaanites are steeped in idolatry and immorality, and not fit to provide the proper wife for Isaac.
Not that Abraham's relatives back home are all saints either. Laban, Abraham's nephew, will soon come on stage, and the Midrash will shortly play with the name Lavan ha Arami, Laban the Aramean, and read it Lavan ha rama'i, Laban the deceiver.
But back to Abraham, the friend of God, the great iconoclast, he who gave up hearth and home, family and tradition and began a new life in Canaan. He also gave up his native language, and adopted the language of Canaan! His relatives in Mesopotamia spoke Aramaic. Hebrew is, after all, the language of the Canaanites. Abraham will, while doing his own thing, assimilate part of the culture of his adopted land; and language, one must admit, is a pretty important element of a culture. Abraham's Hebrew language will become the holy tongue, the language of Scripture.
Abraham is a complicated ancestor of a complicated people. His descendants are destined often to feel uncomfortable in alien environments — to teach and live "Torah" while all the while assimilating major elements of the cultures in which they live. They will speak dozens of languages while trying to remember the Holy Tongue, assume the dress codes of various cultures, feel relatively comfortable and uncomfortable in different eras and in varied environments and continue to search for the meaning of a covenanted relationship with the one eternal God — an interesting, an overwhelming, a magnificent but not always a comfortable destiny.
This last week the Seminary hosted a conference devoted to the culture of Ashkenaz — the music, the religious development, the literature, the hopes and aspirations of one thousand years in the German-speaking lands of Central and Western Europe. What an array of Jewish creativity and piety, cultural blossoming, eventual identification with large elements of German culture — and of terrible horror and disappointments. What glory and what horror and humiliation.
Perhaps the high point of the conference was the spoken memoir of a ninety year old gentleman, the last pre-war rabbi of the large synagogue in Mannheim, Germany, who witnessed the destruction of his synagogue on the terrible Night of Broken Glass, November 10th, 1938, and watched the horror and humiliation of dignified and law-abiding citizens and the end of 1000 years of the German-Jewish civilization.
With grace and dignity, the rabbi affirmed his faith in Israel's destiny in the Diaspora and in Israel's homeland, in the covenant of God with His people, and with the ultimate redemption of mankind.
This Jewishness is a fascinating destiny — that of Abraham's descendants; not always pleasant, not always glorious, yet always challenging in a world that badly needs God and His Jews.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,
Morton M. Leifman