Friday, 29 Oct 2010

Written by Andrea Zanardo

In Mediterranean countries, like the one where I grew up, there is always a theatrical element in communication. Maybe for this reason I like the description of the negotiation in Genesis 23.

Abraham rises up from his mourning to ask for a burial place for his wife. The people of the land propose that he use one of theirs. But he refuses and, after bowing down, asks to speak with the landowner. He does not want a present. He wants to buy.

Then Efron rises up, and reiterates the offer of his fellow citizens. Abraham bows down once again, and is adamant: he wants to pay. At the end, cunningly, Efron announces the price, which is exorbitant; the request comes together with expressions of friendship and esteem, which makes it more irritating.
Beside the pleasure of the text, why do we read this detailed account of a negotiation, including the final agreement?

Traditional commentaries teach that this episode is meant to stress the duty of meth mitzvah, care for the unburied body of the friendless person. The more modern commentators pay attention to Abraham’s psychology: he seeks desperately something physical, some place that he can call his own. Even a grave, which is never mentioned outside of Genesis, has become important, because it is the symbol of the future fulfilment of the hopes for the larger Promised Land{footnote}The Torah. A Modern Commentary, ed W. Gunther Plaut, p. 164.{/footnote}.
All these interpretations, as deep and thought-provoking they are, come unfortunately with their own agenda, the one of their respective Jewish movement, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform and Liberal. And quite often these agendas are problematic.

Praise of meth mitzvah for example comes together with a harsh reproach of cremation (“always repugnant to Jewish feelings”{footnote}The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by Dr. J.H. Hertz, London, Soncino Press, 5737-1977, p.  80.{/footnote}). And disdain for archaeological evidence in Hebron is perhaps impudent to the memory of the piety of those Jews, who lived there for generations, before the horrendous pogrom of 1929.
Not only agendas can be problematic. There are acrimonious conflicts between various Jewish movements. There are people who want to exclude other Jews from the Jewish life; loyalty to Judaism is put under scrutiny; worst of all, lineage is tested. It is a depressing sight for those who are initiated, in learning institutions like this College, to the art of learning through cultivated and respectful debate.

As a Rabbinical student, who dreams to work for the Jewish people, I find this frustrating.

But maybe Abraham, in this week’s parashah, shows a way to deal with this kind of frustration, a way that comes out of the contrast between noble dreams and reality.

Abraham has been told “I will make of you a great nation” [Gen 12:2] and “I will assign this land to your offspring” [Gen 12:7]. Now he finds himself a widower, without even the place to bury his beloved wife. To purchase it, he has to deal with Hittites, whose behaviour in negotiations is unctuous at least.

In this negotiation, Abraham shows to the Hittites that he has principles.  “I am a resident alien among you” [Gen 23:4]: I am not like you, he says, he wants to pay. But to us, the readers, Abraham shows chiefly the extent of his maturation. He is no longer dominated by his own faith, by the willingness to sacrifice everything, even a son. God himself had acknowledged it, and in the same time had made clear that it is not what He wants.

Abraham still has faith in the Divine promise, but he does not expect anymore the promise to be fulfilled by itself. He acts independently. He starts buying that small piece of land, and wants to state clearly that it belongs to his family.

Abraham’s journey had started with great dreams. But once he had mourned for Sarah, Abraham is forced to face reality: he has no land. The confrontation with reality can be hard and frustrating for those who come from high places, pervaded by elevated visions.

Norman Cohen speaks eloquently of Abraham’s transformation{footnote}N.J. Cohen, Voices from Genesis, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, p. 91.{/footnote}. The death of Sarah made him realize the transient condition of the human life. Abraham feels alone, deeply alone.

Through the negotiation with the Hittites, and Efron, Abraham experiences greed, an unpleasant side of human nature; he faces the hardships of his own condition “I am a stranger” [Gen 23:4]. In a word, Abraham experiences how dreams and visions come together with limitations.

It is exactly at this point that Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his own son, shows that he has become aware of other people’s emotional needs.

The Torah then tells us that he begins to look for a wife for his son.  But that’s another story.

Andrea Zanardo
October 2010


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.