Weekly Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) A Jewish Hero: Dignified, Satisfied, and Serene

One of the most striking features about Judaism in comparison with, say, Christianity or Islam, is that it is impossible to answer the following question: Who is the central character of the drama of faith? In both of the other Abrahamic monotheisms the answer is obvious. In Judaism, it is anything but. Is it Abraham, the founder of the covenantal family? Is it Jacob, who gave his name Israel to our people and its land? Is it Moses, the liberator and lawgiver? Perhaps it’s David, the greatest Jewish king or maybe his son Solomon, the builder of the Temple and the author of its literature of wisdom? Is it Isaiah, the poet laureate of hope? The matriarchs and other great women throughout the Bible also have a similar richness and diversity, which makes it impossible to choose one as the central character of the Jewish drama.

It is as if the birth of monotheism – the uncompromising unity of the creative, revelatory and redemptive forces at work in the universe – created space for the full diversity of the human condition to emerge.

So Abraham, whose life draws to its close in this week’s Parsha, is an individual rather than an archetype. Neither Isaac nor Jacob nor anyone else for that matter is quite like him. One of his most striking features is the sheer serenity of the end of his life. In a series of vignettes, we see him, wise and forward looking, taking care of the future, tying up the loose ends of a life of deferred promises.

Somehow we sense in Abraham the beauty and power of a faith that places its trust in G-d so totally that there is neither apprehension nor fear. Abraham is not without emotion. We sense it in his anguish at the displacement of Ishmael and his protest against the apparent injustice of the destruction of Sodom. However, though it all he places himself in G-d’s hands. He does what is incumbent on him to do and he trusts G-d to do what He says He will do. There is something sublime about his faith.

Yet the Torah – even in this week’s parsha, after the supreme trial of the binding of Isaac – gives us a glimpse of the continuing challenge to his faith. Sarah has died and Abraham has nowhere to bury her. It would seem to be frustrating because time after time G-d has promised him the land. When he arrived in Canaan G-d informs him,
“To your offspring I will give this land.” [12: 7]
Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” [13: 17]
He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” [15: 7]

In these and other promises (seven in all), Abraham is told that he will be gifted the Land yet now he owns not one square inch of it in which to bury his wife. This sets the scene for a complex encounter, in which Abraham negotiates for the right to buy a field and a cave.

In the end, even though the locals pay him deference, he is entirely at their mercy and must use all his negotiating skill in order to merely buy a small piece of land for a hefty sum. It all seems an impossibly long way from the vision G-d had painted for him that the entire country would one day be a home for his descendants but that doesn’t deter Abraham; he is content. The next chapter begins with the words, “Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed him in all things” (24: 1).

That is the faith of an Abraham. The man promised as many children as the stars of the sky has one child to continue the covenant. The man promised the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates” (15: 18) has acquired one field and a tomb. But that is enough. The journey has begun and Abraham knows “It is not for you to complete the task.” He can die content.

One phrase shines through the negotiation with the Hittites. They acknowledge Abraham the alien and stranger as “a prince of G-d in our midst.” The contrast with Lot could not be greater. Recall that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, had abandoned his distinctiveness. He had made his home in Sodom. His daughters had married local men. He “sat in the gate” of the town (19: 1), implying that he had become one of the elders or judges. Yet when he resisted the people who were intent on abusing his visitors, they said: “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge!” (19: 9).

Lot, who had assimilated, was scorned whereas Abraham, who maintained his distance, yet fought and prayed for his neighbors, was respected. So it was then. So it is now. Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Non-Jews disrespect Jews who disrespect Judaism.

So, at the end of his life, we see Abraham, dignified, satisfied, and serene. There are many types of hero in Judaism, but few as majestic as the man who first heard the call of G-d, and began the journey we still continue.

(Source: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 5771)