Our first burial and the resident alien

By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
Parashat Chaye Sarah

Sarah’s death is the first in Hebrew history. Up to now, the Hebrews’ existence as semi-nomadic merchants and shepherds has been sufficient. In fact, Abraham and his retinue have grown “very rich in livestock, silver, and gold” (Genesis 13:2). God has promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars by night (15:3) and the dust of the earth by day (13:15-16). The land, too, is guaranteed to Abraham and his offspring — north, south, east and west, as far as the eye could see (13:14-15). But at the moment of Sarah’s death, Abraham owns no land and has no ready path to nationhood. He will address progeny later by sending for a wife for Isaac. At this moment, burial of his beloved is urgent.

He needs a plot of land with a clear and permanent title since Abraham foresees that this is destined to be the “gathering place” of his family. We know how right he is. Sarah will soon be joined by Abraham himself (25:9), by Isaac (35:29), by Rebekah and Leah (49:31), and lastly by Jacob (50:13). When the Bible speaks of “being gathered to one’s ancestors,” it speaks in two senses at once: There is a notion that 1) Sheol is divided such that one’s tribe, one’s clan and one’s family are gathered; but, more essentially, 2) there is a consecrated burial site where one’s ancestors are honored and where one longs to rest with them.

For burial, Abraham requires a one-time exception. He appeals to a community council in Hebron, stating up front that he is a ger v’toshav (as usually translated, “a resident alien”) among the Canaanites (23:4). Modern scholars recognize Abraham’s legal status from two appearances in the Torah and also from archeological finds of tablets of civil law from the city of Eshnunna (ca. 1930 BCE), Old Babylonian law codes (ca. 1894–1595 BCE) and recorded laws and customs of the Hurrian region around Nuzi (ca. 1450-1350 BCE). All these sources agree that the semi-nomadic outsider is granted the rights and privileges of trade and commerce, but is prohibited from owning land.

Torah law is concerned with the ger, the “stranger,” who lives among us. We are reminded time and again that we ourselves were “strangers” in the land of Egypt. We are therefore commanded to extend equal rights and fair treatment to the stranger. In the Talmud, the rabbis went further, developing an entire category of law regarding the ger toshav, the “stranger living permanently among Jews.” But none of that would apply to Abraham.

Abraham is not a ger toshav. The same two words are separated by the Hebrew letter vav, meaning “and.” Abraham says he is a ger v’toshav: “a stranger” — meaning “an outsider” — and “a resident” — meaning “a neighbor.” In asking for land, he does not seek any citizenship, equal or otherwise, in the Hebron community. He fully intends to remain separate and apart. He just seeks an exception to purchase a burial site. Nor can he accept the site as a gift. It must be formally purchased. He pays Ephron’s full price without bargaining. He ensures that the local council witnesses the transaction.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks astutely pointed out that Abraham was aware that the cave and field of Machpelah was promised by God to him and to his descendants. But Abraham does not wait for God to intervene. Instead, Abraham teaches a profound truth: God is always waiting for us to act. I also believe that when Abraham declares himself a ger v’toshav, he is both proud of and alert to his destiny. As current representatives of the family of Abraham, we too should awaken to our status and be ever-mindful of our calling.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “The Essential Jewish Stories,” “The Wise Folk of Chelm,” “Bible Dreams” and other books featured at https://RosselBooks.com.

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