Parshat Chaye Sara- A True Achuzat Olam

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(וישקל אברהם לעפרן את הכסף… ארבע מאות שקל כסף עובר לסוחר” (בראשית כ”ג:ט”ז”

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Avraham Avinu, upon the passing of his wife Sara, begins to search out a burial place for her. He approaches the בני חת, who direct him towards Efron. אברהם then begins to haggle with עפרון in a manner contrary to any other Jew in the history of the world has ever done; he kept on offering to pay more for עפרון’s prime property, מערת המכפלה the Machpela cave. At the end of the story, עפרון agrees to accept אברהם’s payment of 400 shekels for the cave and its environs. On a basic level, this incident seems a little bit confusing, as Efron starts out offering to give Avraham the מערה for free, but ends up charging an exorbitant amount. However, if we take a deeper look at the storyline, a pattern begins to emerge.

When אברהם begins looking for a קבר for שרה and he speaks to the Hettites, he asks for “אחוזת קבר” among them. They respond “במבחר קבורתנו קבר מתך” We will give you the choice of burial places for free. However, the word “אחוזה” an estate, is mysteriously missing. Avraham, clearly not satisfied with this, pushes on, directly asking עפרון החיתי to give him מערת המכפלה as an “אחוזת קבר.” Efron responds by saying “I will give you the field לקבר את מיתך.” Once again, there is no mention of an אחוזה. Finally, אברהם begs “I will pay for the field- just let me have it as an אחוזה.” Efron finally relents and grants him a generous offer to let אברהם buy it for a mere “ארבע מאות שקל כסף עובר לסוחר, Four hundred silver shekels of negotiable currency”, which Rashi interprets as a different currency called centenaria, each of which is worth 2500 ordinary shekels. So, in the end of the day, אברהם paid around one million shekalim, and “והמערה אשר בו לאברהם לאחוזת קבר” Avraham acquired the cave there as an estate for burial- he finally accomplished his goal of acquiring an אחוזת קבר, albeit at an extremely steep price.

What is the significance of אברהם asking for an אחוזת קבר? Why were the בני חת so against him acquiring an eternal inheritance that they kept on trying to swindle him out of acquiring the מערה under his terms?

To fully understand the significance of אברהם’s קנין of מערת המכפלה, we must first ask why אברהם went to the בני חת in the first place. At the beginning of ספר בראשית, Rashi asks why we start the תורה with the genesis of the world if the first commandment, “החודש הזה,” isn’t given over until immediately prior to יציאת מצרים. He answers that the תורה starts at the beginning, so that if gentiles ever ask us what right we have to the land of Israel, and what right did we have to “steal” the land from the seven nations, we can answer them that G-d created the world (in בראשית) and He has the right to give the land to whomever He wants. Initially He gave it to the seven nations of Canaan, but He afterwards gave it to each of our successive forefathers. Therefore ארץ ישראל is ours. With this פשט in mind, it is even harder to comprehend why אברהם had to beg for an אחוזה from the בני חת, one of the seven Canaanite nations, when G-d had already promised the entire land to him.

Rabeinu Yonah comes to the rescue here, in his commentary on פרקי אבות. He teaches that the tenth and final of אברהם’s tests of faith was to beg for and acquire an eternal burial plot for his wife and eventually him and his descendants. This challenge of faith was to go out and fulfill the directive to “קום התהלך בארץ… כי לך אתנה” by quite literally getting up and straightforwardly purchasing part of the land from one of its inhabitants. This רבינו יונה sheds a lot of light on a curious incident which took place in פרשת לך לך.

After אברם, שרי and לוט return from מצרים, we are told that Avraham and Lot’s shepherds got into a disagreement. Rashi explains that Avraham’s shepherds would muzzle their cattle so that the flocks wouldn’t graze from ground that didn’t belong to Avraham while Lot’s shepherds wouldn’t. Avraham’s shepherds challenge Lot’s shepherds, asking why they are stealing. Lot’s shepherds justify their actions by saying that since the entire land has been promised to Avraham and his family, not muzzling his animals it isn’t stealing. In case we, the humble readers, are left in doubt as to who is right, the פסוק concludes “והכנעני אז בארץ,” showing that since the land wasn’t in אברהם’s hands yet, it would not be right to steal from the כנענים. In this way, אברהם had to go and beg for an אחוזת קבר from the כנענים, since he hadn’t been given the land yet.

Nevertheless, we still don’t understand the significance of אברהם insisting that he purchase Machpela as an אחוזת עולם. Why did he go out of his way to ensure that the main property in חברון would be his forever?

The Midrash Raba, putting this story into a different context, teaches that the קנין of מערת המכפלה is one of the three places in תנ”ך where one of our forebears purchased property in ארץ ישראל without a doubt so that one day when the גוים challenge us, telling us that our G-d-given-right to ארץ ישראל isn’t enough, trying to take away part of our Holy Land, we can show them that we bought it and acquired it fair and square. They are:

  • מערת המכפלה in Hebron- in this week’s פרשה
  • קבר יוסף in שכם (Nablus)- in פרשת וישלח
  • הר הבית in Jerusalem- told over in דברי הימים, but took place prior to the building of the First Temple

For these places, the Midrash concludes, there can be no doubt to whom they belong- we have legally acquired them and they therefore belong to us.

Looking at the Midrash in the context of current events in תשע”ג, it’s quite interesting to note that three places that the Jewish people own without a shadow of a doubt, are in fact, three of the most contested areas in the modern state of Israel; Hebron, Jerusalem, and Shechem. In each of these cities, the current residents work very hard to discredit the original Jewish residents by attacking Jewish visitors, taking over the Jewish housing, and trying to separate from the Jewish state through politics. They even change the names of the cities in an attempt to disconnect the modern city from its biblical past. In Arabic, Jerusalem is known as al-Quds (the Holy City), Hebron is known as al-Hallil (our friend), and Shechem is known as Nablus, a reference to the Roman city of Neapolis. In each of these places, the Arab residents try to drive the Jewish residents out and destroy their ancestral connection.

Shechem, known presently as Nablus, is one of the biggest cities in the West Bank of the Jordan River, a region less commonly known by its correct name, יהודה ושומרון-Judea and Samaria. Wikipedia.org defines Nablus as “a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank approximately 63 km north of Jerusalem… a Palestinian commercial and cultural center.” At the end of the article, there is a brief reference to Joseph’s Tomb, but otherwise there is no mention of our rightful ownership of the city. This is the modern world’s perception of Shechem, and it is one hundred percent incorrect! The so-called “Palestinian people,” who claim a right the land as a result of their alleged connection to the biblical Philistines but, being Muslims, are actually descendants of Ishmael (for an accurate idea of what their future holds, please see my דבר תורה on לך לך),  control the city, and constantly feed the world lies about their ancestry and our right to the land. However, there is one site in the center of Nablus, which is definitely Jewish property and proves our ancient link to the land and our link to Shechem: קבר יוסף- The Tomb of Joseph.

When the city of Nablus was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in December 1995 in accordance with the Oslo Accords,  the new residents took no time in starting to harass and attack any Jews trying to visit the holy site, leading to its evacuation in late 1999. Shortly afterwards, the Muslim residents pillaged and destroyed the tomb and its adjacent yeshiva in an attempt to remove the Jewish connection to the city. To this day, Shechem is one of the most dangerous places inside modern Israel for a Jew to be. However, there are few brave souls who put their lives on the line to remind the Palestinians who the owners of Nablus are, through the monthly trip to Kever Yosef. Every month, in the middle of the night on a different day each month, small groups of extremely brave Jews, accompanied by a large contingent of IDF soldiers, enter Shechem and pay homage to the resting place of our forebear Yosef, risking their lives in the process. These brave people help keep Shechem an אחוזת עולם and try to remind the world whose city it is.

Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, home of our two Holy Temples and hopefully a third one very soon, was acquired by David Hamelech to build the site of the first temple approximately 2900 years ago. Since the 19th century, the ancient Jewish walled city has been divided between Christians, Muslims, Armenians and Jews.  Jewish families who had been living in the formerly Jewish parts of the city were kicked out to make room for the newcomers when the city was divided, and to this day there is a lot of controversy over who should control which parts of the old city. Additionally, outside of the old city, Palestinian Arabs are illegally building and squatting on formerly Jewish properties in East Jerusalem in an effort to establish their ill-fated Palestinian State. One could definitely say that Jerusalem, originally conquered and acquired from the Jebusites by David Hamelech, is definitely not in Jewish hands anymore.

Last week I was zoche to spend shabbat with my former Yeshiva, Yeshivat Lev Hatorah, in the old city of Jerusalem. While we did a lot of traditional Old City Shabbat activities (ie dancing to and davening at the Kotel on Friday Night, walking tours of the Jewish Quarter on shabbat day), we also had the opportunity to do something very unique on Friday Night- we visited a Jewish community in the middle of the Christian Quarter. The leader of the community greeted us and spoke to us about the purpose of his community- he explained that he works as a representative for the Jewish National Fund, who, in an attempt to reclaim ancestral Jewish land, are buying back property in the formerly-Jewish quarters. After reading this week’s parsha, it occurred to me that these settlers of the Old City are continuing Avraham Avinu’s mission from Biblical times: to acquire our land, to have it forever as an אחוזה. With Hashem’s help, they should be successful in their mission to reclaim the Old City and we should be zoche to have a reunited Jerusalem very soon.

Lastly, Hebron, a mostly Palestinian city, has only a small Jewish community (in שכונת אברהם אבינו) and only part of our eternal אחוזה, the מערה, is available to us on a daily basis. The rest of it, specically the burial places of other יצחק and רבקה, is used as a mosque and is closed off completely to Jews except for 10 days of the year. Even the modern structure over the מערה, which was built by the Muslims in an attempt to erase the obvious Jewish history of the location, cannot stop the Jews from visiting. As a matter of fact, the Hebron Fund began circulating ads and bumper stickers a few years ago which read “מערת המכפלה: קנינו, שילמנו, זה שלנו- Ma’arat Hamachpela: We paid, we acquired it, it is ours. This attitude, and the strong Jewish community in nearby Kiryat Arba, help keep the Jewish presence at Machpela very large, reminding the local residents whose אחוזת עולם it is.

This week, in commemoration of the original purchase of the מערה, there will be the annual pilgrimage of thousands of Jews to spend Shabbat in the Holy City of Hebron. During this time, the entire מערה is open only to Jews and all of the Arab residents are confined to their houses for the weekend, with an a lot of extra חיילים on guard to keep the peace and enforce the curfew.  I was privileged to be in חברון for שבת חיי שרה last year and I found it aweing to see the ancient biblical city come back to life. This is a prime example of the modern Jewish people taking back what is rightfully ours and it is a true fulfillment of אברהם אבינו’s קנין of מערת המכפלה- through setting up and taking advantage of opportunities like Shabbat Hebron, we are truly able to turn our forebear’s acquisition of חברון into an אחוזת עולם.

With the re-election of Mr. Barack H. Obama as the president of the United States for another four years, the only good news for Israel could be the resultant higher rate of aliyah. President Obama has a track record of trying to convince the Jewish State to give away its land, land that was won through the sacrifice of fallen Jewish soldiers in Israel’s wars. By giving in to this pressure, and giving up land, we are not only wasting the sacrifice these חיילים made- we are also willingly giving up pieces of land that have been owned by Jews for thousands of years. The only recourse is to remind both the Israeli and American governments who the land belongs to by taking as many opportunities as possible to visit Kever Yosef, Ma’arat Hamachpela, the old city of Jerusalem, and all of the other Holy sites in Israel. Through this we will בעזרת השם maintain our אחוזה, both those purchased by our ancestors, and the rest of the land, which G-d promised to the Children of Israel forever.

We should be zoche to continue to take advantage of opportunities to reclaim our ancestral homeland, especially areas that our ancestors purchased directly, and by doing this continue Avraham Avinu’s mission of taking back his Promised Land- this time for good.