Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah

There are for Sedra Shorts on Parshat Chayei Sarah . Scroll down for each Dvar Torah:

  • Listen to Us!!
  • The Other Sons of Avraham
  • The Missing God
  • The Legacy of Terach

Listen to US!!

Despite being promised by God: “all the land that you see I will give to you…” (Bereshit 13:15), Avraham is a “stranger and a sojourner “ (ibid 23:4) and has no place to bury his wife. Therefore, he begins negotiations with the Hittites in order to secure a burial plot.

The first two negotiations end with Avraham bowing low (ibid 7 & 12), the modern equivalent of a handshake and partial success. The third rounds ends with complete success. We will examine these negotiations:

The root Shema (“listen” or “understand”) appears 6 times in this short narrative. The Hittites were not listening to Avraham or at least they misunderstood him

The First Negotiation (ibid 3-7)

Avraham asks to buy a burial plot. The Hittites respect Avraham and consider him to be “Prince of God” (ibid 6), a spiritual leader of the highest pedigree. Is he really interested in owning land or does he merely need a place to bury his wife? They think the latter.

Therefore, rather than requiring him to purchase land they tell him “in the most desired of our tombs you can bury your dead. None of us will withhold his tomb from you” (ibid). The Hittites misunderstood Avraham’s need to own the plot. Instead, they offer him a space wherever he so desires. Avraham thanks them; he has been partially successful.

The Second Negotiation (ibid 8-12)

Avraham requests a meeting with Ephron ben Zochar, so that he can purchase a specific plot: The Meorat HaMachpela. Ephron, tells Avraham: “Listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it… bury your dead" (ibid 11). He too, does not seem to understand Avraham’s need to own the land. Avraham thanks him He has now secured the actual plot, but is still not satisfied: he wants unreserved ownership.

The Third Negotiation (ibid 13-16)

Avraham is well aware that a gift of land would have a questionable legal status and so he continues negotiating, insisting on a purchase: “Listen to me, I am giving money for the field” (ibid 13). Ephron then names his price: “four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you?” (ibid 15) and Avraham makes the remuneration.

Avraham ensures that all was done “before the eyes (or ears) of the Hittites” (ibid 10, 11, 16 & 18) and at the gates of the city, the commercial and legal center. The deed of sale is then recorded and witnessed (ibid 17-18). The ownership of the plot could never be contested.

Religions are often considered to be the realm of the spirit. Material assets such as land should not be of concern to the truly spiritual person. Judaism however, is different; it is not an ascetic religion. It believes in nourishing the body. So too, the Land of Israel is an integral part of its identity. They cannot be separated.

The Other Sons of Avraham

Most of the stories of Avraham revolve around his yearning and God's promise that he will bear a son. That finally occurs when he was 100 years old.

It is therefore, most surprising, to learn at the end of the parsha that Avraham not only did Avraham have another son, Yishamael, but that he had a further six sons!!

"Abraham took another wife and her name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Jishbak and Shuah" (Bereshit 25:1-2).

Nevertheless, God had previously promised Avraham that only "Yitschak will be called your seed" (ibid 21:12).

However, it is very common for brothers to fight among themselves for the leadership and inheritance. David's sons had a number of conflicts be fore David formally and publicly declared that Shlomo, not Adoniyahu, would be his successor (I Melachim 1:34). Even after this declaration, it was clear that Adoniyahu harboured dreams of claiming the monarchy (ibid 2:22).

The fact that the seven other sons were "sons of Avraham's concubines" (Bereshit 25:6), is irrelevant to their claims of inheritance. The four sons of Bilha and Zilpa equally inherited Yaakov with their brother, as did Avimelech, one of Gidon's seventy sons (see Shoftim Ch.8-9). Yiftach was also supposed to inherit with his brothers, but they drove him away (ibid 11:2).

Indeed, ancient law states that sons of concubines and slaves have an equal right of inheritance with legitimate heirs. However, there is one proviso. The father can disinherit "illegitimate" children by publicly proclaiming who his heirs are and by releasing them from slavery.

This is exactly what Avraham does. First of all he publicly states that Yitschak is his sole heir: "Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitschak" (Bereshit 25:5). This is confirmed by his servant who tells Lavan and Betuel: "Sarah, my master's wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he gave him all that he possesses" (ibid 24:36).

However, Avraham performs a further two acts to ensure that Yitschak will be protected from any uprising by his more numerous brothers.

Firstly, "to the sons of Avraham's concubines, Avraham gave gifts" (ibid 25:6). Avraham ensured that his other sons were well provided for materially and that they would have no material claims against Yitschak.

Furthermore: "and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive, eastward to the land of the East" (ibid). The words "to send away" is the same word used for "divorce", i.e. Avraham releases them from his servitude. We had previously seen how Avraham had done this to one son, Yishmael (ibid 21:14). The Torah now states that Avraham did the same treatment to his other sons. Note, that Avraham was not leaving them destitute, he was merely securing Yitschak's claim over the Land of Canaan.

Moreover, when Avraham died, note how the Torah states: "Yitschak and Yishmael his sons buried him" (ibid 25:9), with Yitschak's name being written first. Furthermore, we see that "after Avraham's death… Isaac settled near Be'er Lachai Ro'i" (ibid 11). This is where Hagar had fled to after she was freed from Avraham's household (ibid 16:14). Yitschak is clearly asserting his claim over this area.

Notice finally, at the list of Yishmael's toldot, he is described as: "these are the toldot of Yishmael the son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian, the maidservant of Sarah, bore to Abraham" (ibid 25:12), i.e. Yishmael was the son of Hagar who just happened to have been born to Avraham. Just a few pesukim later, while stating Yitschak's toldot, the passuk writes: "these are the generations of Yitschak the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitschak" (ibid 19).

Avraham may have had eight sons, but he only had one heir.

The Missing God

This week's parsha is unique in the Torah – it is the only one in which God does not talk to humanity. He remains silent.

That does not mean that He is ignored. On the contrary He is mentioned throughout. To begin with, Avraham makes his servant swear an oath in the name of God: "I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites" (Bereshit 24:3).

Furthermore, the servant makes a prayer to God, saying: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today" (ibid 12). He also refers to God in his speech with Lavan and Betuel a number of times.

Additionally, when Rivka met Yitschak for the first time, he "went out to meditate in the field", the Rabbis explain that he was praying.

God's actions are also very visible in the parsha. Avraham had promised his servant that God "will send His angel before you" (ibid 7), meaning that he would succeed in his mission. The way in which the servant succeeded was even more impressive. He asked God for a sign. The servant received that sign instantaneously and the first girl that he met was Avraham's cousin's daughter, Rivka. The test that he set her was also passed with success. Everything went exactly to plan.

Yet the lack of prophetic communication from God is still conspicuous by its absence. Why is He silent?

The parsha can be divided up into two parts: Firstly, Avraham's attempts to bury Sarah. Secondly, Avraham's search for a wife for Yitschak. We could put these episodes into one category: The Avot without the Imahaot, The Patriarchs without the Matriarchs.

Sarah is dead and Avraham is alone. Yitchak has no partner and he is alone. Furthermore, after three years, Yitschak is still morning his mother as he was only: "comforted for [the loss of] his mother" after he married Rivka (ibid 67).

Under these conditions, the word of God cannot be heard. The fathers without the mothers are incomplete; it is only when they are together and that there is joy and that word of God can be spoken.

The Legacy of Terach

After Sarah's death, Avraham sent his servant to "go to my father's house and to my family, and take a wife for my son" (Bereshit 24:38). The servant found Rivka and she followed him to Canaan to marry Yitschak.

Yitschak was not the only one to marry within Terach's, Avraham's father, family. Yitschak also told Yaakov to marry within the family: "Go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother's father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother" (ibid 28:2).

So did Avraham. Sarah was Terach's daughter, as Avraham explained to Avimelech: "Also, indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife" (ibid 28:12).

Indeed, the Torah seems to have genuine concern for all of Terach's descendents. Twice the Torah departs from its story line to tell us how Lot was saved from danger (see ibid Ch 14 & Ch.19). It also lists all twelve of Nahor's descendants (ibid 22:20-24), all twelve of Yishmael's descendents (ibid 25:12-18), all twelve of Esav's descendents (ibid Ch.36) as well as all twelve of Yaakov's descendents.

Furthermore, while the Torah records all the toldot (legacies) of all the above mentioned patriarchs as well as the toldot of Yitschak, there is no toldot of Avraham. Yet, there is a toldot of Terach: "These are the toldot of Terach: Terach begot Avram, Nachor, and Caran, and Charan begot Lot" (ibid 11:27).

Finally, in Yehoshua's final address to the Jewish people before his death, he begins with origins of the Jewish people. However he does not begin with Avraham. He begins with Terach: "Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River, even Terach, the father of Avraham, and the father of Nachor; and they served other gods" (Yehoshua 24:2).

What was Terach's legacy? What was it about him that caused Avraham to follow a special path that made Avraham ensure that his children only marry from within his own family?

This is a hard question to answer as the Torah tells us very little, in fact only one sentence, about him: "Terach took Avram his son and Lot the son of Charan, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Abram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and settled there" (Bereshit 11:31).

Avraham's mission to move to Canaan actually began with Terach. Terach may have been Avraham's inspiration and the one who set him on the path of his glorious journey.

For some reason, Terach was not able to follow through. Rabbi Menachem Liebtag suggest that like many Jewish parents, Terach taught his children the importance of Eretz Yisrael without himself being willing to make the final leap of moving there. Nevertheless, Avraham learned enough in order to complete the mission. It is reasonable to assume that Nachor, Avraham's only surviving brother, may also have had sympathies with living in Eretz Yisrael and possibly even taught Rivka about it.

Indeed, Avraham gives Rivka exactly the same test that God gave him. Could she leave her homeland, her birthplace, her father's house and go to a land she had never seen? Rivka did not hesitate. When Lavan and his mother asked her "Will you go with this man?" Rivka did not waver. She responded: "I will go" (ibid 24:54).

How was it that Rivka could be so decisive that she could move to Canaan without any hesitation, at a moments notice in the same manner that Avraham did? Perhaps she had inspiration from the same man that Avraham had. Perhaps the union of Yitschak and Rivka was part of Terach's legacy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have an ability of drawing the reader's attention. Your interpretations may be arguable. But your posts are too good.

This is Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News

9:00 AM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

Thank you again Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News :)- Your compliments are very appreciated. I have other things I do on the parsha I would be happy to share.

I tried looking at your profile, but it was blocked.

6:54 PM  

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