This week's reading opens with a strange and verbose dialogue that seems to go in circles. Abraham requires a burial plot for his beloved wife Sarah. He asks to be given "the possession of a grave" (23:4), and is immediately told that he can choose any piece of land (23:6). Here is where the discussion ought to end: request granted. But apparently the patriarch is not satisfied; he insists on meeting a certain Ephron ben Zohar, from whom he wishes to purchase a field with a two-story cave for "full money as a possession" (23:9). Ephron seems perfectly content to give him the cave as a gift, but Abraham remains dissatisfied, so Ephron charges him 400 shekels of silver, and the deal is consummated.
What's going on? Why does Abraham insist on paying for what he can obtain free? What happened to his Jewish "bargain-hunting" gene?
Rabbi Elhanan Samet in his Interpretations of the Biblical Portions drew my attention to the studies of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld and Ezra Tziyon Melamed, who reveal that in the ancient Middle East only a resident citizen - in this case, a bona-fide Hittite - could purchase land that would become his eternal possession and which he could bequeath to his descendants. Abraham is not interested in a temporary site which would revert to Hittite ownership after his death. Abraham wants Sarah's grave to be part of the patrimony of his progeny. Hence he is requesting special treatment even though he is an alien resident (ger toshav), a Hebrew and not a Hittite. Such a concession can only be made with the permission and in the presence of all the Hittites together, in a public forum or town meeting.
Abraham is initially refused this request. Although the denial is couched in complimentary terms - "a prince of God are you in our midst" - he is being told that although no one would deny him a grave, it will have to remain the possession of the Hittite who owns it. Abraham can use or borrow anyone's grave that he wishes, but will not be able to pass it on.
Abraham tries again. He wishes to meet Ephron, who apparently owns the parcel of land. Abraham asks for permission to purchase the edge of that estate, which has a two-story cave on it which can become a mausoleum for Sarah (and later for himself and his children and grandchildren); and the patriarch insists on paying "full money" to acquire a piece of land that he truly owns, and can pass down to future generations (23:9).
Ephron again tries to pawn the land off as a gift - it will cost you nothing, you can use it in your lifetime, but you will not own it. Abraham insists on purchase, and agrees to pay a sum that would ordinarily acquire 35 acres, but at the end of negotiations, "the field of Ephron which was of two stories..., the field and the cave which was on it..., went up as an acquisition to Abraham in the presence of the Hittite... for the possession of a grave..." (23:17-20).
It became Abraham's possession - an inheritance which he could bequeath to his descendants.
Abraham's request reverberates through the millennia, and speaks to us in a most timely manner. Abraham the Hebrew is addressing the Hittite gentile who has inhabited the land the Hebrew was promised by God: Give me the right to bequeath this land to my descendants; I shall pay for it in any way you wish - in damim (money) or in dam (blood). But I do not want it as a temporary gift or favor; I am willing to do whatever I must to acquire it as my possession.
The fact that the first plot of land in Israel "acquired by right of ownership" is Sarah's grave is fraught with significance: Israel is the land of our continuity, the place of our eternity. It was never meant for temporary use by our people. And just as Abraham insists on paying for Sarah's grave - so that it can never revert back to any other claimant - so does King David insist on paying Arauna the Jebusite for the land which was to become the Temple Mount: "Nay, I must purchase, yes, purchase it from you for a price, so that I not make my offerings to the God of whole burnt offerings free of charge [without the legal right of ownership]" (II Samuel 24:24); and again, "Nay, I will purchase, yes purchase it for full silver" (I Chronicles 21:24).
From this perspective, we can well understand why our sages derive the husband-wife engagement by means of a wedding ring. A Jewish marriage is an eternal relationship of responsibility which extends beyond the spouse's lifetime; a Jewish marriage portends continuity from generation to generation; like the relationship of the nation of Israel to the land of Israel, it is an eternal one.
How ironic that the two sacred places whose purchase by Israel is recorded in the Bible - the Cave of the Couples (Ma'arat Hamachpela) in Hebron and the Temple Mount - remain the most hotly contested areas in Israel!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.