THE PORTION OF HAYYEI SARAH: GENESIS 23-25:18
This portion of Genesis is an end of life saga, but at the same time it is a secret testimony, a message delivered across the ages, as to what it means to perpetuate life on a promised land, how one can make it an eternal life on the land. It is momentous and dramatic, focusing both on the burial of the old generation and the continuity of the next generation, with Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah. None of these changes, however, guarantee any perpetual relationship to the land. The secret to that lies in the nature of their dealings with their neighbors.
There are two things that stand out that make this portion distinctive for coexistence and a rational approach to neighbors, but which simultaneously embodies the spiritual fulfillment of promised land. The text highlights the critical importance of land to the memory and place of ancestors in the life of a people, and that is why buying burial grounds was so critical. At the same time, Abraham acknowledged in every word that he said to the Hittites that the place that he wanted and needed for this spiritual fulfillment was a shared space. A shared space required--and still does to this day--something that is one of the oldest and most successful forms of conflict prevention in human history, and that is honorable and equitable shared commerce. That is why Abraham begins and ends his engagement with the Hittites with an insistence on proper buying and selling of property.
The style of that commercial interaction, however, is also critical to notice. There is profound respect in the use of language, in the discourse going back and forth between Abraham and the Hittite community. There is a deep expression of honor and appreciation of each other's roles and destiny in life. The Hittites say to Abraham: you are the elect of God among us. What an extraordinary gesture by these strangers! The language and style suggests a classic encounter that Martin Buber articulated as the embodiment of the highest human ethical and divine encounter, the I-You encounter, where equals know each other deeply in terms of not only their needs and positions, but also their highest essence.
This is how the Hittites describe Abraham with knowledge of his spiritual destiny, not just the fact that he is a potential fellow landholder. There is no bartering here, no competition, no posturing at all, just the meeting of true human beings. The first lesson for perpetuity on the land then is that commerce and legal interactions of equity, honor and in-depth knowledge of the other are critical to transactions that will last a long time, like a few thousand years.
There is another element here that is almost equally as important, and that is Abraham’s self-identification as Ger ve’Toshav, a stranger and a temporary resident. This is one of the most important concepts in Biblical literature. It stands out as one of the most frequently quoted commandments. Thirty-four times the Bible commands the Jewish people to love the Ger ve’Toshav, the stranger and resident among them. But that commandment, its exact language, originates in this self-identification of Abraham as the original resident alien among the Hittites. Further on in Biblical history there is the next critical phase of this idea, the recognition by the book of Exodus that the Jewish people as such were a community of Gerim, or a community of resident aliens in Egypt. That experience, both the positive aspects of it during Joseph's time and the negative aspects of it in terms of the oppression of Pharaoh, were designed as a teaching of what it is to be a stranger in another people’s land or even another person’s city. Finally, later in the Bible is the lesson that we are all temporary residents on God’s earth, and that therefore we had better treat others and the earth itself with the utmost care as temporary stewards.
The encounter with the Hittites is the Ur-text, it is the original construct of what it is to create moral relationships of love and care across boundaries, where both parties are different, where they are not merging into one party, but where there is still the experience of love and respect across that boundary.
This is the most important lesson that Judaism has to offer the world. It is not a message of unity, it is a message of plurality; it is not a message of absorption of one into another. It is rather the lesson of honor of difference across borders of respect, love, care, and deep meeting. It is a lesson that the world cannot survive without, and it is a message across the millennia to those who would attempt to live in the Promised Land.
Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin has authored a number of books, is the James H. Laue Professor, and Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at SCAR , George Mason University, and also co-owns a multiple narrative peace tourism company, Mejdi Tours.