Recently, routine has been punctuated by the death, burial and memorial of Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef, the great halachic and political leader of millions of Jews
throughout Israel and the world. Our portion this week devotes an entire chapter
to the purchase of a gravesite for the burial of Sarah, Matriarch of Israel.
What is the meaning behind Abraham’s bargaining for a burial plot, and what
connection, if any, does this biblical story have with Rabbi Ovadia’s funeral?
Let us begin with our text. Abraham, an itinerant shepherd throughout the area
which will one day become the Land of Israel, approaches the “Children of Heth”
(the Hittites): “I am a stranger resident among you,” he says. “Give me
possession of a gravesite so that I may bury my dead from before me” (Genesis
The Children of Heth seem more than generous in their response:
“You are a Prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of gravesites may you
bury your dead.
None of us will withhold his gravesite from
Abraham is not satisfied. He requests a meeting with Ephron the son
of Zohar, to whom he wishes to pay “top dollar and cash-in-hand” for the
Machpela Tomb at the end of his field. The residents of Heth want to give
Abraham a free burial plot; Abraham insists on paying a high price.
“bargaining” begins. Ephron insists on giving the patriarch a free plot; but
when he finally names a price, it is an excessive 400 silver shekels. According
to the Code of Hammurabi, an average workingman’s annual wages at the time were
six to eight shekels. Abraham paid the equivalent of 70 years of wages for one
What is the text teaching us? I would submit that Abraham is
heaven-bent on establishing the unique Hebrew identity of his beloved wife,
Sarah, no matter what the financial cost – an identity which will be defined and
determined by her gravesite. You see, in the ancient world, a citizen of a
specific locality received only one advantage as a result of his citizenship: a
free burial plot in that locality (with the exception of Athens, where citizens
had the right to vote).
Now we can understand Abraham’s bargaining with
the children of Heth. Abraham opens the conversation defining himself as an
alien resident; on the one hand he is a Hebrew, not a Hittite, a stranger of a
radically different religion and culture.
He is nevertheless an upright
resident, ready to cooperate with the Hittite civil laws in every way. The
children of Heth are happy to adopt this highly successful patriarch of a new
tribe as one of their own, to “assimilate” him within their
Abraham is ultimately willing to pay any price for Sarah’s total
independence from their surrounding civilization, for her persona as a Hebrew
will be expressed and established by the place and manner in which she is
buried. Show me where you are buried and how you are mourned, and this will
reveal volumes about the life that you lived. Given the manner in which a nation reveres its dead will go a long way in
defining its future, is it any wonder that the Hebrew word kever
is used by the talmudic authorities as a synonym for rehem
Yosef’s funeral was undoubtedly the largest in Israel’s history, estimated to
have included some 800,000 mourners. It expressed the amazing power of Torah,
the most authentic and eternal legacy of our people. Make no mistake, he was not
being mourned as a politician; much the opposite, his politics were often
divisive and even offensive. He was being mourned as a Prince of Torah, as the
greatest unifying authority of Torah law in our generation, a unifying Torah
respected and accepted by Ashkenazim as well as Sephardim, haredim
(ultra-Orthodox), modern Orthodox and secular alike – for representatives from
all walks of Israeli life came to his door to seek halachic advice and live by
His Torah, true to the tradition of the greatest Torah
leaders of the last 2,000 years, was unique in our generation. It was a Torah
which breathed democracy, because although he came from Iraq and expressed the
Iraqi (Babylonian) tradition, his was the ultimate word for Ashkenazim too – and
so he gave standing and respect to a population which had previously been
discriminated against by the ruling WASP (“White Ashkenazi Populace”) of
His Torah was a Torah of peace and moderation – he ruled that in
the interest of peace and the saving of human lives, we could give up Yamit in
Sinai. His Torah was a Torah of inclusiveness – he ruled that the Jews of
Ethiopia, considered to be of the lost tribe of Dan by the 16th-century
authority Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra), were legitimately Jewish and did not
require conversion, and he ruled that all the military conversions were
And his Torah was a Torah of compassion, which sought to
solve problems rather than create them. I never brought him a problem of an
(“chained woman” seeking a divorce) or a mamzer
for which he did not find a solution. May the outpouring at his funeral help
define the Torah with which we must enter our future.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone
colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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