Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 6, 1993
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
God willing, I shall be in Israel when you read my thoughts on this week's parasha. I leave Sunday evening to attend the commencement of the Seminary's Beit Midrash in Jerusalem on November 3, at which we will confer some twenty-five degrees to Israeli students who have completed their course of studies either as rabbis, teachers, or community center workers. These young Israelis, and those who preceded them and those who will follow them, will in due time mainstream Conservative Judaism in Israel, thereby creating the reality of a religious alternative to Orthodoxy.
Hayyei Sarah is a timely text for a visit to Israel, because it records Abraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron as a burial site for his wife Sarah. The length of the narrative suggests just how important the Torah regarded the acquisition of this first piece of real estate by Abraham, after so much wandering in Eretz Yisrael. Eventually, tradition made it the resting place of four ancient couples: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. I still remember vividly visiting this holy site, located today in the precincts of a large mosque and marked by eight gigantic caskets above ground, back in the heady days of July 1967.
A remarkable rabbinic homily picks up on the Torah's attentiveness to Abraham's economic transaction with Ephron the Hittite. "This is one of three places where the nations of the world cannot accuse Israel of theft;" the other two being the Temple Mount purchase by David (Chronicles I, 21:25), and a parcel of land in Shechem bought by Jacob (Genesis 33:19). That is, all three spots were not gained by force of arms but legally through a bona fide sale.
A similar and better-known midrash opens Rashi's commentary to the Torah. "Rabbi Yitzhak declared that the Torah should have really begun with the commandment in Exodus 12:2, `This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.' For this commandment (pertaining to Passover) was the first one given to Israel. Then why did the Torah open with creation? `He revealed to His people His powerful works, in giving them the heritage of nations (Psalms, 111:5).' In other words, if the nations of the world should denounce Israel as a band of thieves saying: `You are the ones who conquered and took away the territory of the seven nations,' Israel can respond: `The whole world belongs to God. He created it and gave it to those who were upright in His eyes. It was His will to give them [the nations] the land originally and it was His will to take it away from them and give it to us.'"
Both midrashim are defensive and apologetic in tone, indicating that they are rooted in a historical context. They seem to preserve echoes of an ancient debate, not unlike that of our own day, over the legitimacy of Jewish dominion over Eretz Yisrael. And, indeed, the size and power of the far-flung Jewish community in the Greco-Roman era gave rise to constant friction and periodic bloodshed. Palestine had long been home to many national groups. Under the Maccabees and their Hasmonean descendants in the second century B.C.E., the Jewish state embarked on an ambitious policy of military expansion and unprecedented forced conversion to create a rejuvenated and formidable Jewish state, which did not come under Roman rule till 63 B.C.E. Despite the political reversal in Palestine, Judaism continued to advance demographically and religiously throughout the Roman empire. By the first century C.E., Jews accounted for no less than one-tenth of the population of the empire, according to the estimate of historian Salo Baron.Moreover, this Jewish minority was assertive and contrary. Three times within the span of seven decades it threatened Roman might with major uprisings -- first in 66 C.E. in Palestine, then in 115 C.E. across North Africa, and finally in 131 C.E. under Bar Kochba in Palestine. While the cumulative effect of these rebellions may have halted further Roman expansion eastward towards the Parthians, they also diminished the luster of Judaism for non-Jews, reversing a long trend of religious diffusion.
Rabbinic literature resonates with the tension of this worldwide conflict between two proud cultures and contrasting religious systems. Rabbinic leaders often read the stories of Genesis in light of their own turmoil, with the two midrashim I have cited as a striking example.
And yet, I would argue, these two midrashim do not pervert the biblical text; they deepen it. The question of Rabbi Yitzhak, and Rashi for that matter, demands an answer. Why does the Torah, which is primarily a legal corpus, albeit religious in nature, take the detour to recount anything prior to Moses and the exodus from Egypt? What is the purpose of a narrative framework that takes us swiftly and artfully from creation of the world through the beginnings of humankind to the sagas of our own ancestors?
The two midrashim suggest reading B'reishit as a preamble to the Torah, a historical document that lays claim to the land of Canaan for the children of Abraham. Whatever the charges may have been in the Greco-Roman period, the Torah itself, at a much earlier date, felt impelled to justify the appropriation of a land that was not without inhabitants. B'reishit abounds with traces that bespeak a polemic for possession.
To begin with, the main plot of the book is the promise by God to each patriarch that this ancient land will eventually be settled by their progeny. Second, the promise is reinforced by the scandalous tales we have already read which seek to discredit the claims of the nations of Canaan (Gen. 9:18-29) and Moab and Amnon (Gen. 19:30-38) by associating their origins with acts of incest.
Finally, the entire book turns subtly on the motif of the rejection of the first-born. Repeatedly, God bestows favor and blessings on the younger sibling. It is Abel's sacrifice and not Cain's that God finds acceptable, although Cain was the first to make an offering (Gen. 4:3-5). Neither Isaac nor Jacob nor Joseph nor Judah gain supremacy by virtue of being born first. Genesis reads like a novel of family intrigue driven by the absence of any clear principle of succession, and I cannot help but see this level playing field as an indirect rebuke of native Canaanites who based their right to the land on the argument that they were the first to settle it. For the Torah it is moral virtue, and not chronology or primogeniture, that constitute a valid territorial claim. God's freedom of action is not curbed by mechanical rules.
I am not suggesting for a minute that this political argument is the only reason that B'reishit opens the Torah. The text is too complex and multivalent to allow for a single interpretation. But the political thrust is definitely present and pervasive; witness the way Rashi opens his commentary to the Torah.
It is truly amazing that the offspring of Abraham have settled the land of Israel three times in sufficient numbers to create a powerful Jewish commonwealth. Each time they came upon a land that was not without native inhabitants and each time they were forced to share it. Perhaps our historical mission is not to achieve a model of social justice and political equality for a society that is homogeneous, a task difficult enough, but for one that is decidedly mixed, which is the more common human condition.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,