Chayei Sarah - Our Public Face
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
This week's Parsha begins with the first recorded land purchase in the
Torah. In order to secure a burial plot for Sarah, Avraham purchased the
Cave of Machpelah and its surrounding field. He negotiated with Ephron
Hachiti who priced the field on the high end of the market, 400 newly
minted silver shekels. Avraham agreed to pay the asking price and
immediately paid Ephron. The transaction was dully ratified and witnessed
by the gathered community.
Why did the Torah devote so many verses to this acquisition? Why emphasize
that Avraham immediately paid the asking price? Why is it important for us
to know that the community witnessed the transaction?
Parshas Chayei Sarah is the third installment in the developing story of
Avraham and the Chosen People. The story began in Lech Lecha when Avraham
was 75 years old. His escape to Egypt, the separation from Lot, his
victorious battle against the Four Kings, his encounter with Avimelech, his
circumcision and the foretelling of Yitzchak's birth, the attempted defense
and decisive destruction of Sodom, the covenant with Avimelech and Phichol,
and the Akeidah, are but moments in the life and times of Avraham Avinu. In
no way can they be construed as a history of his life. Therefore, each
incident as well as the collective presentation of these moments was
Avraham had two missions in life. 1. Teach monotheism and reveal G-d's
presence in the universe. 2. Give birth and raise the next generation of
Jews. The two missions were linked to each other because it would be the
subsequent generations of Jews who would continue the work of teaching
monotheism and revealing G-d's presence.
Avraham and Sarah were uniquely suited for their mission. Their passion,
resourcefulness, intelligence, compassion, tireless self-sacrifice, and
above all else belief in G-d had been purified and tested from the fires of
Ur Kasdim to the altar on Mt. Moriah. They attracted the ignorant innocents
of their generation and reformed them in the image of the Creator.
More so than their historic accomplishments in teaching monotheism was
their success in raising their son. Thirty-seven years of joyous love and
vigilant attention produced a human being, the only one in all of history,
who would earn the accolade of "perfect". A wholeness of spirit and body, a
creation of such perfection that even the angels had to cry.
However, there is more to the job of teaching monotheism than personal
perfection. Teaching and influencing demands outreach and availability.
Students must have access to their teachers and teachers must be prepared
to open their personal lives to their students. Interpersonal dynamics must
be manifest in a manner that guarantees a continued relationship after the
The Jew was clearly intended to be different and apart. In last week's
Parsha Avraham sought advice from his friend Mamrei as to whether or not
the Bris should be a public or private event. Avraham was concerned that
"becoming different" would interfere with his ability to teach. Others
would associate his moral and religious teachings with his being physically
different and that would create a bias against accepting his moral
instructions. Mamrei encouraged Avraham to embrace the difference and trust
in the power of G-d's command and his own monumental Chesed. They would
carry the message of belief in a single G-d far more than any assumed
similarities or differences.
However, first impressions are of paramount importance especially when
there are external differences in dress and behavior. The external
differences between Jew and non-Jew would interfere if they weren't
mitigated by some other initial factor.
Going back to Noach and the Mabul, we were taught that the moral depravity
of the antediluvian generations could be summed up under the heading of
"Chumus - thievery." Although murder and idolatry were also rampant, they
were judged and destroyed because they were thieves, not because they were
murderers and idolaters.
Basically, a society that does not respect personal property and individual
rights is a society that will murder and deny the existence of G-d.
Therefore, the rebirth of the post-diluvian world had to predicated on
respect for the personal belongings of all individuals. So long as society
embraces the rights of individuals to be individual, society will continue
to exist. So long as the individual respects the property of his fellow
human being, all other individual differences become acceptable.
In order for Avraham to be the teacher of monotheism the very first
impression the world would have of him had to be uncompromised honesty and
integrity. His word had to be his bond, and his deeds had to be above
In 13:3, Rashi referenced the Medresh that emphasized Avraham's honesty.
When fleeing Canaan because of the hunger, Avraham wealth had been totally
spent on feeding the hungry. He couldn't afford to pay the innkeepers on
the way to Egypt and they extended to him the necessary credit. Upon
returning from Egypt, once again wealthy, he made sure to pay back each and
every one of his debts.
In 13:7 Rashi referenced the Medresh that details the argument between Lot
and Avraham. Avraham instructed his shepherds to pasture his flocks in
public fields and never allow them to graze on private lands. Lot, on the
other hand, allowed his herds to graze on properties belonging to others.
Therefore, Avraham had to separate from Lot. Only by complete
disassociation from Lot's thievery could he maintain his reputation for
absolute uncompromised honesty and integrity.
Upon Avraham's victorious return from the battle against the Four Kings,
the king of Sodom offered Avraham the recaptured wealth of Sodom. Avraham
refused and said, (14:24) "So you (king of Sodom) shall not say, It is I
(the king of Sodom) who made Avram rich."
Why didn't Avraham want Sodom's wealth? He had not refused the wealth of
Egypt? Avraham refused because it was the wealth of Sodom. The moral
depravity of Sodom was reminiscent of the antediluvian generations. They
too could be summed up under the heading of "Chumus - thievery." Therefore,
Avraham could have nothing to do with the wealth of Sodom. It was tainted
with dishonesty and thievery. No one would be able to point a finger at
Avraham's wealth and say, "His wealth is really my wealth!" Egypt on the
other hand might have been immoral in other ways, but not because of Chumus
- thievery." Therefore Avraham accepted Pharaohs offer but not Sodom's.
In this week's Parsha Avraham had to negotiate with the residents of
Chevron for Sarah's burial plot. The entire negotiation emphasizes
Avraham's insistence on paying full price for the property.
(23:9) "Let him grant it to me for its full price."
(23:13) "Rather, if only you would heed me! I give you the price of the
field, accept it from me!"
(23:16) "Avraham weighed out to Ephron the price which he had mentioned...
400 silver shekels."
Despite Ephron's initial statement of generosity, (23:11) "No my lord, heed
me! I have given you the field as well as the cave that is in it!" Avraham
insisted on paying top Shekel. Furthermore, the entire proceeding was done
in the open. There were no back room negotiations over hot cups of tea and
baklava. All dealings between Avraham and Ephron were done in view of the
general public. (23:18) "The field and the cave within it... was confirmed
as Avraham's as a purchase in the view of the children of Ches, among all
who came to the gate of his city."
A new generation was about to come into its own. Yitzchak and Rivkah were
to become the new Avraham and Sarah. Sarah's burial site would also be
Avraham's and it would remain as the sole monument to their monumental
accomplishments. It became imperative that their final resting place
reflect the nature of their influence and teachings. Therefore, all
negotiations and the actual purchased had to be, as per Avraham's
insistence, public and without question. No one would be able to question
Avraham's integrity and honesty, not during his lifetime or after his passing.
The face of the Jew must always be clean. Integrity, honesty, and the
keeping of one's word must always be the world's first impression.
Regardless of the truths we live and teach, if the other nations do not
perceive us as honest and forthright we will have failed in carrying on the
mission of Avraham and Sara.
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.