The Graves of Our Ancestors

Hayyei Sarah By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Oct 29, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

I went to visit the graves of my parents the other day, and could not help but think—with this Torah portion looming—of the times when I went with my father (whose name was Abraham, until he changed it) to visit my mother’s grave. We would stare at the monument that on one side bore her name and on the other had been kept blank, awaiting his. Last Friday was a pleasant fall day in Philadelphia. The cemetery was crowded with American Jews, but not too crowded. Open grassy space remained for many future residents. A copse of trees separated this Jewish neighborhood on one of its four sides from the Gentile homes that, on the other three borders, stood just across the fence. The place was quiet, as one expects a cemetery to be. Relations between Jews and Gentiles are also quiet in Philadelphia these days, as one hopes they will be. I ate my tuna hoagie at a place down the street, had a macchiato at Starbucks, and went on my way.

The utterly routine character of this visit to my parents, the two people to whom I owe absolutely everything, highlights the utterly nonroutine character of Abraham’s burial of his wife in the Torah portion that bears her name. He “rose from before his dead,” after the prescribed period of mourning, and announced himself to his neighbors, “the Hittites,” as “a resident alien among you.” Abraham urgently needs something they might not be willing to sell: an ahuzat-kever “among you.” The Jewish Publication Society, by translating these key words simply as “burial site,” misses the political character of the transaction. And—this being the first time that an Israelite secures property in the Land of Israel, the Land that God has promised Abraham will one day belong to his descendants—the transaction also bears a profound religious importance. Fulfillment of God’s covenant proceeds from and depends upon this business deal.

The burial site is an ahuza, a holding. That is why, as the commentator Nahmanides (and others too) shrewdly noted, Abraham could not just purchase the cave in which Sarah would be buried. He also needed guaranteed possession of the field at the edge of which the cave was located. The Hittites regard Abraham as a “prince of God among us” and so cannot deny him the ability to bury his dead wife. The root for “bury” and “grave” appears no less than four times in their favorable response to Abraham’s request. In his reply, which moves the discussion from general principles to negotiation over a specific plot, Abraham joins two more uses of the word to ahuza of Ephfron’s field. Scholars do not know exactly what the four hundred shekels that Abraham paid the Hittite for the gravesite would have bought in ancient Canaan, but we know the price was steep. It had to be.

And Abraham had no choice but to pay it. Not only did Sarah’s body lie before him. So, too, did God’s promise that the land would someday be his. Until this point, Abraham has wandered the land, settled and grazed flocks on it, fought battles on it, dealt with its rulers over water rights, and enjoyed God’s evident protection and blessing. Soon he will make sure to seek a wife for Isaac (who will succeed him as partner to God in covenant) among his cousins back home in Mesopotamia, rather than among the neighbors with whom he now bargains for a gravesite. The purchase of land in Canaan marks a turning point. Abraham seeks an “eternal home,” an “eternal resting place,” in the Land which at that moment offers neither home nor resting place for his family, but, according to God’s promise, will one day provide both to his descendants. He has bet his life (and Sarah’s!) on the divine promise. Now he bets her death (and his!) on that same promise.

“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of the field [literally: ‘within all its surrounding border’] passed [literally, ‘arose’; the same word used twice to describe Abraham’s actions in this chapter] to Abraham as his possession in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of the town” [i.e., the notables whose recognition of the deal guaranteed its standing].

The Torah does not tell us what the Hittites were thinking at this moment. They could not have known the full import of what they were doing. They may have believed—as the residents of Shechem stated explicitly two generations later, when dealing with Jacob and his sons—that the Israelite minority in their midst would inevitably assimilate into their majority if treated properly.

But we can imagine what Abraham might have been thinking. Isaac had been restored to him after the threat of sacrifice. The covenant, too, remained standing as a result. Sarah’s death forced Abraham to confront his own mortality and the unfinished business on his end of the covenant. He has to act to acquire the land that God has promised him and his descendants, and he has to find his son a suitable wife who will (with God’s help) ensure the existence of those descendants. He knows that both projects come at God’s command, and so trusts from the start that they will be successful.

One suspects that in ancient Israel, as in many societies in the ancient world, the dead were buried near at hand. One wanted to visit them, consult them, and meditate upon the fact that one would someday join them. Machpelah was meant for Abraham too, not just for Sarah. It would be for Isaac, and the generations after Isaac. Burial on this field affords a profound connection to the land of which the field is a part. It is one thing to wander the surface of the earth, another to plant seeds in the topsoil and draw sustenance from its produce, and still another to populate the earth with one’s own remains, thereby becoming part of it. One might say that we claim a piece of land by virtue of possessing it as a burial site—and even more when, in burial, the land possesses us.

Pondering this matter, particularly from the vantage point of a cemetery just outside the Philadelphia city limits, I can understand the Jews who, over the centuries and still today, have lived in Diaspora but willed burial in the Land of Israel. They have wanted to be “gathered to the ancestors” in the only piece of the Earth that has been set aside by God, according to Torah, for those ancestors and their descendants. Jews have laid claim to the Land of Israel over many centuries by living on it, yearning for it, and being buried in it. No connection to God’s earth is more profound.

Contemporary Jews—like other modern individuals—tend to look away from death. Our tradition does not. Some might regard it as morbid even to focus, as this column does, on the concentration on mortality in this week’s parashah. The Torah clearly does not. It seeks to place death in a context of meaning; to face it, and face it down, by surrounding it with stories, laws, and teachings that guide and affirm life. The Rabbis, true to this intent, called the portion that begins with Sarah’s death and ends with Abraham’s, Hayyei Sarah. The name comes from the opening words in the opening verse of the portion, words that are repeated at the end of that same verse in a way that suggests a significant pun. Shnei hayyei Sarah could mean “the years of Sarah’s life”; but the words could also mean “the two lives of Sarah.”

We who read this text year after year with love and devotion, determined to act in accordance with its lesson, we are the second life of Sarah. Her story does not end when her 127 years of life end. It continues with us. Converts to Judaism are named “children of Abraham and Sarah” because they too, in joining Judaism, become heirs to the story. The covenant is carried forward by means of our enduring connection to the Torah, which in turn mandates enduring relationship to the Land of Israel. We know this is for life—not because the Torah says so, or this story chronicling death and burial has the word life in its name, but because we have experienced it.

After visiting the cemetery, my wife and I made our way to the site of a bar mitzvah, which is, I think, what the two Abrahams in my life would have wanted.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.