Divine promise and human effort

Ten years later and the promise had still not been fulfilled.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion opens with the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the first matriarch of the Jewish nation. After Abraham expresses his pain and mourns for his wife, who had been with him for such a long journey and has now died, he faces a problem: He does not have a burial plot for her.
Abraham’s urgent mission during this difficult hour is to find a burial plot, so he turns to the local residents and asks them to buy the Cave of Machpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron. Finally, after a long and complicated negotiation, he purchases the cave and the field surrounding it, and he buries Sarah in it. From here on, the Cave of the Patriarchs would become Abraham’s family’s cemetery plot where Abraham would be buried alongside Sarah, and later Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.
Abraham’s need to purchase the cave and the field surrounding it for its full price reminds us that it should not have been this way. Sixty-two years earlier, when Abraham embarked on a journey to the unknown following God’s instructions and reached Canaan, which is the Land of Israel, he was promised the land in words that cannot be misunderstood: “And the Lord said to Abram... ‘Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity... Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you.’” (Genesis 13:14-17) A year goes by, and then another, and then another.
Ten years later and the promise had still not been fulfilled.
Twenty... 30... 60 years later and Abraham was still wandering the land without owning a piece of land legally. But he manages. He has a tent where he hosts guests, he raises his son Isaac, and then at this most difficult of moments, reality hits. Sarah dies and he has nowhere to bury her.
What is Abraham going to do now? What would we do in this situation? The Torah does not mention Abraham’s reaction to this complicated situation, but only notes his actions: He purchases the Cave of Machpela. Does this point to Abraham giving up on the promise that had been made to him by God to get the Land of Israel? The sages of the Talmud did not see Abraham’s actions in this way when they quoted God’s words to Moses: “I told Abraham: ‘Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you.’ He wanted a place in which to bury Sarah and did not find one, until he bought for 400 shekels and did not contemplate My midot [qualities].” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin, 111) Indeed, Abraham did not contemplate God’s qualities but continued to believe in His promise. So why did he purchase the Cave of Machpela rather than wait for God to arrange things for him? It seems that even in the difficult situation Abraham was in, he internalized the following concept: A Divine promise does not excuse man from investing his own efforts. True, the land was promised to me. Sixty-two years have passed and the promise has not yet been fulfilled. But all this does not negate my own role at this time to take steps to make the promise come true.
This is an important message for each of us: God’s promise does not mean we should stand around and wait. On the contrary, it calls upon us to make an effort, lean in, make things happen. The promise is needed in order to add to reality what we ourselves cannot contribute: its success. We can work hard and yet not succeed. It is the success – and not the effort – that is provided only by He who administers the world, the Creator of the Universe. And thus God tells us: Open for Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle and I will open for you an opening the size of a hall.
You make the effort and I will help make it a success.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.