Ahuzah: Settling Down

Hayyei Sarah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 23, 2013 / 5774

At the opening of this week’s parashah, Abraham is occupied with arrangements for the burial of his beloved wife, Sarah. Subsequent to his period of mourning, Abraham turns to the Hittites, the ruling authorities of the land in his day, and politely requests a plot. Our forefather entreats his hosts, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial” (Gen. 23:4). The Hebrew expression used for a burial site is ahuzat kever, more accurately translated as a literal grasping, holding, or possession for burial. How may we understand the nuance of the original Hebrew expression? What precisely is Abraham requesting from the Hittites?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

The word ahuzah occurs exclusively referring to landed property which is just what cannot be grasped. It is never used in connection with mobile property . . . The object is not gripped by the owner; rather the owner is gripped and held fast by the object and that in fact is the case with the possession of land. Land holds its owner; he is chained to it which is why land can be a guarantee for its owner . . . So that the underlying idea of ahuzah is being settled, the act of permanent settling. Abraham does not ask for permission just to bury his wife. He wants his wife to rest in her permanent everlasting possession of her resting place . . . He had tarried for many years as an alien in the country and had never tried to acquire a single foot in it. For wandering was his calling. The necessity for burying his wife was the first cause that brought him the need to acquire the possession of land in the country. His wife’s grave was to be the first bond that attaches him to the land, the place that draws him to it and holds him: ahuzah. (Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, 382)

Rabbi Hirsch’s exegesis on ahuzah is deeply moving. Not only are we held (sometimes as if hostage) by land in our lives, but oftentimes we are held closely and affectionately by loved ones. With their passing, there is a strong, powerful sense that we continue to be held or grasped by them. Sarah, who “grasped” Abraham during the length of her days, will continue to hold Abraham through the act of burial. The ahuzat kever, possession of a burial site, becomes the anchor for Abraham in the land. He is indeed a wanderer par excellence for much of his life. Ironically, it is the death of Sarah that leads to Abraham’s desire to be settled there. Through the acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah, Abraham embraces the legacy of his life partner and the divine promise. It is both a familial and national embrace that transcends one seemingly ephemeral chapter of one’s life—enduring for eternity.

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