Chayei Sarah: Why Non-Jews Respect Jews Who Respect Judaism

An after-death lesson from the life of Sarah

An after-death lesson from the life of Sarah

Table for Five: Chayei Sarah

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

“Listen to us, my lord, you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of our graves bury your dead. None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead.”

 -Gen. 23:6

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Morrie Schwartz, immortalized in Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie,” famously arranged a funeral for himself while alive, so he could be uplifted by the praises and encomiums that often only erupt after one’s last breath.  Our Jewish tradition is excellent at the dual mitzvot of k’vod hamet (honoring the deceased) and nihum avelim (comforting mourners).  We activate quickly and purposefully, ensuring that the dead are eulogized and buried with honor, the survivors surrounded with love.  It is one of the things that ritual, communal Judaism does best.

What are we not as great at? Proffering honor during life, particularly at the end of life.  An old rabbinic tradition reads into our verse an object lesson for what not to do in this regard. The Hittites with whom Avraham is negotiating speak with great generosity, including the promise that no one will hold back a burial plot upon his or his family’s death.  Focusing on “bury your dead,” the interpretation suggests that it will be in death that honor will come from them to Avraham. In life? Not so much.

So too, the commentary continues, in too many Jewish communities.  Eulogies and public praise and dedications…in death.  While too many approach that death, at the end of life, lacking resources, comfort and ease.  For a tradition that venerates life above all, we should transfer some of the kavod/honor we will give at someone’s death to when they are still with us, breathing, able to appreciate more fully our generosity.

Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

We are God’s partners in the world, and we see two models of this partnership in the verse. The first is a lesson on how to treat other people: Avraham must bury Sara in a land where he owns not even a plot of land — and his humble request of the Hittites is met with overwhelming generosity. While he calls himself a stranger, they call him Prince; while he shares that he has nothing, they offer him his choice of plots. This model of kindness towards strangers is held up as one to emulate. We are told again and again, not just in this verse, that we are obligated to treat other people, and especially the stranger, with generosity and kindness. Part of being God’s partner is emulating God in our relationships.

Avraham refuses this offer, however, and realizes he has an obligation in this scenario, which is our second model of partnership. God had previously told Avraham that he will inherit the land of Canaan — so when the Hittites offer the burial plot for free, Avraham could accept their offer and wait for God to fulfill God’s promise. Instead Avraham realizes he is God’s partner in fulfilling this promise, and Avraham buys the cave. And we are taught — ​​despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

We cannot wait for God to deliver; we must take an active role in making our world a better place through kindness and generosity.

Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, President, Magen Am USA

Confidence is a crucial element in security operations. It is one of the top traits we train our teams in, as a mediocre plan with a confident performance outshines a stellar plan with a wavering team. But confidence becomes a liability when coupled with unhealthy pride. A poor mixture of the two will often lead to disaster.

When Abraham begins the negotiations to purchase a burial plot, he describes himself as a “stranger and a settler”. He spoke with a confident humility, with no attempt to hide or massage his identity. No attempt to seek a better position.  One might think he’d have better chances by praising or emulating the locals, but his approach was simply “This is who I am, and this is what I need to accomplish.” The locals respond by praising him for who he really is, “a Prince of G-d”.

Often times, we feel a need to justify who we are or to compromise on our principles, in order to appease the voice inside ourselves that tell us to blend in and stop being so different. The truth is, we need to trust G-d in His creative power and have a confident humility – embracing the differences we have and the beautiful traditions He gave us. When we respect our own, and are confident in our position, the natural reaction is for others to reflect and share that respect.

Marcus J Freed, author of The Kabbalah Sutras, @marcusjfreed

Four years ago I was hit by a car and had a near-death experience whilst undergoing life-saving brain surgery. I found myself in a void and saw two windows; a white window which was the gateway to the next world, and a gold one that would lead me back to this life. In that moment I saw that death is an illusion and that our consciousness goes with us.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught that there is no death and that souls of the righteous are more powerful after passing. In this verse the Sons of Heth make four mentions of the word for ‘bury’ (Kever) and we could see each of these as relating to the four worlds or energetic dimensions referred to by Kabbalah. The Hebrew spelling of ‘Heth’ is the same word as the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Het). This gematria (numerology) of the number eight represents the supernatural. We could thus read this passage through a mystical lens as “the sons of eight” speak to Abraham, and the burial cave of Machpelah as a portal for the elevation of the Jewish people to the four worlds, or energetic dimensions.

If you rearrange the last two letters for burial – KVR (kever) – you get KRV (kiruv) which means ‘drawing closer’. When we emulate Abraham’s quality of chesed (kindness, generosity), we become closer to our fellow humans, and get closer to God. As Russell Crowe said in Gladiator, “what we do in life, echoes in eternity”.

Nina Litvak, AccidentalTalmudist.org

When Abraham’s wife Sarah dies in Hebron, he asks the local Hittites to sell him a burial site. He begins his request by describing himself as a “sojourning stranger.” This seems a bit odd. Abraham wants to make a deal with the Hittites but immediately makes it clear he has no interest in becoming one of them. Wouldn’t ingratiating himself bring a greater chance of success? It seems more propitious to start with something like “I stand in admiration of you, please sell me a burial plot for my wife.”

What’s even odder is the way the Hittites respond, addressing Abraham as a “prince of God” and showing him great respect (although they are slippery in negotiation.) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compares this to an earlier episode: Abraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom (Gen. 19.) In both situations a believer in the One God finds himself in a land of idolatry, but they react in different ways. Abraham maintains his separate identity, while Lot assimilates, becoming important enough to sit at the gate. Interestingly, it is Abraham who is treated with greater respect. When Lot tries to protect his guests, the people of Sodom turn on him. “He came here as a sojourner, and already he acts the ruler!”

In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. Non-Jews disrespect Jews who disrespect Judaism.” An understandable reaction to anti-Semitism is to assimilate and conform to the majority culture. But we’re respected more when we’re not afraid to be different.

With thanks to Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, Marcus Freed, Nina Litvak, and Dr. Erica Rothblum.

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Image by Maurycy Gottlieb

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