Chayei Sarah - Stranger or Citizen
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Parshas Chayey Sarah records the first Jewish land purchase. In 2084 - 1677
b.c.e., Sarah died at the age of 127 and Avraham had to purchase a burial
plot. He negotiated with Ephron the Hitite and bought the Cave of Machpelah
for top dollar. This interaction is of tremendous significance for the next
363 years of the Jewish People. Allow me to explain.
In 2018, at the age of 70, Avraham received the prophetic vision known as
the " Covenant Between the Halves". This prophecy (Gen.15: 13-17) foretold
the future of the Jews, from the birth of Yitzchak till our Exodus from
Egypt. Three stages are clearly delineated:
Hashem didn't say how long each stage would be, only the
total of 400 years. Avraham, and subsequently Yitzchak Yakov and Yoseph,
tried to extend the first stage of "strangers in a land not theirs" and limit
the last two stages of slavery and oppression. A careful interpretation of
the first stage of the prophecy reveals that the stage of "stranger" could be
satisfied in relative freedom within the Land of Canaan. So long as the Jews
remained "strangers" rather than "citizens", they could remain in the
promised land and develop into a nation. The stages of slavery and oppression
would be difficult stages for the Jewish People, being that they would be
subject to the will and control of another nation. Therefore, the longer the
period of "stranger", the shorter the stages of "slavery" and "oppression".
- (Gen.15: 13) "...your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not
theirs for 400 years..."
- "...they will be enslaved..."
- "...(they will be) oppressed."
This explains why Avraham's shepherds argued with Lot's shepherds. Lot
allowed his workers to posture themselves as if the Land of Canaan was
already Avraham's, and could have initiated the second stages of slavery and
oppression! Avraham's shepherds, on the other hand, had been properly
cautioned to respect the ownership of the local residents and maintain the
low profile of the immigrant stranger extending the first stage as long as
When Avraham needed to purchase a burial plot for his beloved Sarah, he
approached the local residents with his request. "Either sell me a plot as a
"stranger", or else I will have no choice but to demand my rights as a
"citizen". I've always had the image of Avraham holding his breath in
anticipation of Ephron's answer. "Will he treat me graciously as an honored
"stranger", or will I have to exert myself as a "citizen" and loose my status
as "stranger", setting in motion the second stages of slavery and
oppression?" As we know, Ephron dealt with Avraham as a stranger, exacting
from him an inflated price, which Avraham gladly paid.
The desire to extend the stage of "stranger" motivated much of the action
in the coming stories. Yitzchak's non-aggressive conflict with the Phlistim
over water rights suggested a secondary agenda (Parshas Toldos) and the
desire to maintain a low profile. Yakov's critical, but restrained, response
to the punishment of Shechem for the incident with Dina (Parshas Vayishlach),
suggested a desire to maintain the lowly status of stranger. The conflict
between Yoseph and his brothers can also be interpreted from this
perspective, considering that Yoseph's sale into slavery (Parshas Vayeshev)
heralded the beginning of the second stage of the prophecy. (See Sefer
Haparshios by Eliyahu Ki Tov)
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.