This Week’s Torah Reading Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 Through Genesis 25:18) Shows Us What Loyalty And Respect Are All About

One of the foundational stories of the Jewish people, the story of the Machpelah Cave teaches us the value of loyalty

The Cave of Machpelah that Abraham had bought for 400 silver shekels today
Copyright: CyberCop [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

The tradition of the weekly Torah reading is one of the pillars on which post-Temple Rabbinical Judaism, the Judaism we know today was built. When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Romans in the Great Jewish Revolt of 67 – 70 AD, Jewish worship centered on animal sacrifice by a caste of Cohanim, or priests. Regular folks could cleanse themselves of sin by bringing an animal to be sacrificed to the Temple on one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays of Passover (commemorating the Exodus from Egypt), Shavuot (commemorating the receiving of the Torah and the Covenant at Mount Sinai) and Succot (Tabernacles, commemorating, once again the Egyptian Exodus). These three holidays are key milestones in the saga of the Israelites, the Children of Israel becoming a nation and entering into an everlasting covenant with the Lord, a covenant that we can so clearly see in action today.

When the Temple was burnt to the ground and Jews prohibited from entering Jerusalem, the leading rabbis of the day had to create a new religion from the ashes of the old. They needed to, using modern language, diversify the intellectual property base of the religion from the priests who were now unemployed to every Jew anywhere in the world. They did this by instituting the synagogue, a place of togetherness, a social club cum place of study, a place in which the founding document of our nation would be kept in its original form and used, three times a week, on the market days of Monday and Thursday and on the morning of the Holy Sabbath.

It would be read out loud in front of the entire congregation, not by a priest or even a rabbi, but by regular Jewish men after the age of 13. Young boys who haven’t even begun to shave would climb up to the podium and with their backs to the congregation, facing the Arc in which the Torah scrolls are kept, read a large portion from the Torah, written without punctuation, with barely spaces between words, and with no nikkud, the dots that serve as vowels in the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. The first such reading in a Jewish man’s life occurs on the first Sabbath after his 13th birthday, when he becomes old enough to observe the commandments: a Bar Mitzvah. Believe you me, it is a frightening and chastening experience.

The rabbis divided the Torah into portions of roughly equal length, so that the reading could be started from the first verse of Genesis at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, on the day the Torah was received, and end with the last verse of Deuteronomy on the same day the following year. The weekly Torah readings have become the subject of countless commentaries by people who are immeasurably more deserving than your humble servant, but the beauty of Rabbinical Judaism is that nobody has the lock on the Torah. We have no Pope and no doctrine of infallibility. We are all free to read the Torah and understand it as much as our intellect and our empathy and our God allow us.

In this week’s (the Sabbath of November 23, 2019) portion we read about the deaths of our Matriarch Sarah at the age of 127 and her husband Abraham at the age of 175. We read about the purchase by Abraham from a member of the Canaanite tribe of Heth of the Cave of the Patriarchs known as the Machpelah, the first official ownership by our tribe of a piece of the Promised Land. We also read about a journey of Abraham’s chief servant, after his death, to the ancestral homeland of Abrahams’s family in today’s Iraq to find him a bride from his own tribe, the future matriarch Rivkah (Rebekah).

There is much we can learn about how far our own world has fallen since these times, likely three and  a half millennia ago, from these simple, some would say mundane, transactions. Abraham was, in Canaan, what we would today call an immigrant. A “ger” he calls himself and that is the root Hebrew uses for the word “immigration”. Many English translations sin to the truth by translating “ger” as “stranger”. “Ger” is simply an immigrant.

In being an immigrant, though a wealthy and successful one, Abraham is the very definition of humility in his dealings with the original inhabitants of the land. Unlike the immigrants in America today, legal and illegal, he makes no demands, only entreaties. His heart is set on a certain piece of real estate, a field for pasture that has a cave at its boundary. He wants the pasture for his livestock and the cave to bury his wife, the first of his tribe to have died in this foreign land. But Abraham does not approach Ephron son of Zohar, the owner of the land directly. He shows respect for his status as an immigrant and asks permission to approach him and make him an offer for his real estate from the elders of the Heth tribe. Only upon receiving said permission does he inquire as to the cost of the property and pays the asking price of 400 silver shekels on the spot, no questions asked. This is one of those moments that one feels bad for Ephron, who should have clearly asked for more. It is worth reading the original text in Chabbad’s rather mundane translation somewhat modified by me for further ease of reading. The lack of rhetorical flourishes makes the meaning clearer and thus brings us closer to understanding the divine intent (Genesis 23:3 through 23:20):

Abraham arose from before his dead and he spoke to the people of Heth saying: “I am an immigrant resident among you. Give me a burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me.” The people of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him: “Listen to us, our lord; you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of our graves bury your dead. None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead.”

Abraham then arose and prostrated himself to the people of the land, to the sons of Heth. And he spoke with them, saying: “If it is your will that I bury my dead from before me, listen to me and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar that he may give me the Machpelah (double) Cave, which belongs to him, which is at the end of his field; for a full price let him give it to me in your midst for burial property.”

Ephron was sitting in the midst of the people of Heth and Ephron the Hethite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth, of all those who had come into the gate of his city, saying: “No, my lord, listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead.” Then Abraham prostrated himself before the people of the land and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land saying: “Please listen to me. I am giving you the money for the field; take it from me and I will bury my dead there.” And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him: “My lord, listen to me; this piece of land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and you? Bury your dead.” Abraham listened to Ephron and weighed out to him the silver that he had named in the hearing of the people of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, legal tender. And so the field of Ephron which was in Machpelah facing Mamre was established as Abraham’s possession. This included the field, and the cave that was in it, and all the trees that were in the field, which made up its entire boundary.

This property became Abraham’s possession before the eyes of the people of Heth, in the presence of all who had come within the gate of their city. Then Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave within it were established to Abraham as a burial property, purchased from the people of Heth.”

Next we learn a lesson in loyalty, a quality that in our diminished times is not only discounted, it is actively disparaged. When President Trump demands loyalty from people he selects to act on his behalf as the Chief Executive, he is ridiculed as an unsophisticated and dangerous dinosaur and yet there can be no loyalty greater and of more importance than that of one person to another. Abraham asks his loyal servant, the head of his household, to do s service for his after his death. This service is of the utmost importance because should the servant fail or simply back out, the Abrahamic Blessing would stop with Abraham and yours truly would not be able to partake in it today alongside my fellow Jews.  

Abraham asks his servant, some would say slave, to swear to him that upon his death the servant, who is not named, would undertake a perilous journey to Mesopotamia, to Abraham’s ancestral lands, in order to procure a bride for his only son from his wife Sarah, Isaac. Abraham demands that his servant stop Isaac from marrying any of the local Canaanite women and take a bride only from his own tribe. He demands that his servant swear to it.

What makes the Torah so very compelling to me, what makes it so true and so real, is its little anecdotes. We learn, for example, right here in this passage how people swore three and a half millennia ago in the Middle East. Apparently they did it by placing their hand under the thigh of the man they were swearing to do a service for. Abraham demanded this of his slave who initially refused because he would not swear to do something that was beyond his control. “What if the girl refuses to leave her homeland and travel with me, an utter stranger, to a faraway land to marry someone whom she had never seen?” he asks. “In that case, you are released from your oath” is Abraham’s answer. Only then does the servant place his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the deal is sealed, and the Jewish people are born into this world.   

Post Scriptum: Each Torah reading has a “Haftarah” an afterthought, a post scriptum, taken from parts of the Old Testament other than the Pentateuch. The Haftarah is chanted by the Bar Mitzvah boy after the Torah reading, but that is a different story. What is more interesting, is the choice of Haftarah for the Chayei Sarah portion. It is the story, in 1 Kings 1 through 31, of King David’s firstborn, Adoniyah, son of Hagit trying to make himself king in Israel while David was on his deathbed being entertained by his newest and last mistress, the young Avishag. The problem was that David had promised to his other wife Batsheva, her of the bathing on the roof fame, that he would make her son Solomon king, though he was not the first born. Whether right or wrong, David’s loyalty to Batsheva for whom he committed murder, never wavered and Solomon was king. Loyalty, our Sages tell us, is supreme. It is what makes us men and women, but loyalty is not enough. Loyalty must be fierce and it must be unconditional. Otherwise, we would all be politicians.

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