Parashat Hayei Sarah: Of people, graves, and burials

"This is how the field and its cave became the noncontested property of Abraham as a burial site, purchased from the children of Heth," Genesis 23:20.

October 24, 2013 11:12
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parsha: Burial of Sarah at the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Burial of Sarah at the Cave of the Patriarchs 521. (photo credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan;

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 23:4).

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.

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None of us will withhold his gravesite from you.”

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.

The “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 burial plot.

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 culture.

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 (burial plot) is used by the talmudic authorities as a synonym for rehem (womb)?

Rabbi Ovadia 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 rulings.

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 Israel.

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 legitimate.

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 aguna (“chained woman” seeking a divorce) or a mamzer (illegitimate offspring) 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.

Shabbat shalom

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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