Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
Zionism represents a revolution in its aspiration to establish a society based on justice and compassion. On some level, all Zionism relies on an ancient tradition that gives voice to human pathos, calling all to mercy and empathy in spirit and deed. At its most noble, Zionism could be a triumph of each individual’s yearning for well being and community.
The complex relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel has yielded a series of moral quandaries. In addressing them, we can choose to develop either a narrow or expansive vision of what “Zionism” is, weighing the relative importance of living in the land per se, and of the way we build a society and conduct ourselves on that land. That choice is shaped by a variety of sources–among them, classical Jewish texts and their multiple interpretations–and has far-reaching political and social implications.
In the Torah, God’s promise of the Land to the Israelites was not guaranteed, but contingent on each generation’s pursuit of God’s justice. The success of that pursuit would be judged by the extent to which God’s blessings of fertility and bounty were distributed among the entire society. Therefore, even in the Torah, as well as the remainder of the Bible, the Land of Israel was a means, not an end.
In cultivating a Zionist vision for ourselves that is similarly compassionate and committed to social justice, we need to interpret texts so as to stress the Land of Israel as a vehicle for kiddush ha-shem, glorification of God’s name through admirable acts of moral conscience.
In Parashat Chayei Sara, we are given an opportunity to interpret a critical text. Over these past few weeks, we have seen how Abraham, a semi-nomadic shepherd, follows his flocks to a series of fertile parcels of land. Over time, however, Abraham’s weary and cyclical existence becomes infused with an awareness of destiny, and the charge to live as a blessing to humanity.
In this emerging divine plan, Abraham’s connection to the land becomes essential. He can only thrive morally by having his survival and that of his descendants assured. That assurance comes in the form of God’s promise that Abraham will lay claim to particular land, with guarantees of divine protection and prosperity.
Yet is for Abraham to establish this claim himself. As the portion begins, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a grave for Sarah, effectively establishing his first legitimate land claim. The transaction between the two is especially revealing in this regard. Ephron repeatedly offers the land to Abraham for free, expressing that it would be an honor for him to do so. But Abraham flatly refuses the offer, insisting that he pay the full price. By acquiring the land at a premium, Abraham establishes a claim that is uncontestable.
But the legacy is more than just physical–it is a bequest of a life lived in such a way as to be a blessing to all humanity. Abraham’s purchase of the land, after all, is in the wake of Sarah’s death, which, according to one traditional commentary, occurs upon being informed of Abraham’s taking Isaac to be sacrificed. How can we ignore this tragic irony?
I can only imagine that we are left to puzzle over this juxtaposition in order to consider two interlocking spheres of relationship: those among human beings and those between humanity and God. It is part of the legacy of Abraham and Sarah for us to consider how we receive intimations of our relationship to the divine through our interactions with other people.
But there is also a small, poignant detail that suggests to us Abraham’s desire to establish a legacy that glorifies the moral grandeur of which we are capable. The Torah tells us that, when Abraham dug his first well in Be’er Sheva, he planted a tree next to it, and proceeded to invoke God’s name. The rabbis ask why – after all, one might expect the patriarchs to erect altars, not trees.
This is the answer they supply: Abraham’s mission was not only to settle land, but to be a witness for the benevolence of its creator, and to share in that benevolence with all who visited. He would invite passers by to sit under the tree, take some rest in the shade, and have a drink or something to eat. And afterwards, he would invite them to say a bracha, a blessing of thanks to God for their bounty.
For the rabbis, then, the goal of settling the land was to share of its bounty, and to testify to the goodness of God’s presence in the world.
We would do well to keep Abraham’s tree in mind as we ponder our own relationship to the State of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the people Israel–and to understand Zionism as an attempt to manifest awe, empathy and compassion on a societal level. May we work to see these values made manifest speedily and in our day.
Reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.