My high school English teachers always hounded us to be as succinct as possible in our writing. I think back--with some nostalgia, I admit--to their comments scrawled in red ink over the length and breadth of my essays: "Wordy," "Unnecessary," "Simplify!" Part of the time, of course, I was purposely trying to add on the verbiage to extend the length of the paper; most often, though, I was just wordy or awkward.
What they taught was true: the fewer the words needed to tell the story or convey the idea effectively, the better.
The Torah certainly seems to abide by this rule. No matter how long the reading may seem in shul (!), the Torah is very stingy with words, by and large--especially when it comes to narratives.
And yet, in this parsha, the Torah devotes nearly 20 verses to detailing one small business transaction: Avraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpela, in Chevron, as a burial site for Sarah. What lessons is the Torah teaching with the apparent verbiage?
The negotiations begin as follows: "Avraham rose up from the presence of his dead, and spoke to the children of Chas [the Hittites], saying: 'I am an alien and a resident among you; grant me an estate [achuza] for a burial site with you, that I may bury my dead from before me.'" (Chapter 23, verses 3-4) The local population, who revere Avraham and Sarah as divinely blessed individuals, are willing to let Avraham have rights to any burial spot. But Avraham wants no gift; he wishes to purchase an estate (achuza), a permanent resting place for his wife. "His wife's grave," Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interestingly points out, "was to be the first bond that attaches him to the land, the place that draws him to it and holds him." (Hirsch Chumash: I, 382)
In fact, Avraham has a certain special place in mind, a cave in the
property of a local dignitary, Efron, which he had perceived in a prophetic vision to be
the burial site of Adam and Chava (Eve). (The Call of the Torah, quoting the Zohar: I, p.
305) First, Avraham asks the local council to speak to Efron on his behalf; then he
himself has a brief, but tortuous exchange with the Hittite, in
full view of the city's inhabitants. Avraham tries to explain that he wishes to buy, while
Efron--with apparent generosity -- insists it will be a gift. Finally, it becomes clear
that Efron really is asking for quite a steep price: "My lord, heed me! Land worth
400 silver shekels; between me and you, what is it? Bury your dead!" (Verse 15)
The Torah closes the account with a most detailed (read, wordy) summation of the transaction, establishing Avraham's title to the land:
"And Ephron's field, which was in Machpela, facing Mamre, the field and the cave within it and all the trees in the field, within all its surrounding boundaries, was confirmed as Abraham's as a purchase in the view of the children of Chas, among all who came to the gate of his city. And afterwards Avraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpela facing Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Thus, the field with its cave confirmed as Avraham's as an estate for a burial site, from the children of Chas." (Verses 17-20, Artscroll Chumash, p. 109)
The Talmud states that this was yet another of Avraham's tests: to be forced--in his hour of grief--to endure the indignity of buying one burial plot, despite Hashem's repeated promises that his descendants would inherit the whole length and breadth of the land. By accepting the ordeal without complaint, and by humbling himself before Efron and his people, Avraham displays his true spiritual greatness.
To show us the favorable outcome of Avraham's final test is, no doubt, one of the reasons the Torah describes the incident at such length. But it may also have to do with educating us about basic Jewish values, too. Rabbi Hirsch writes about the supreme importance Avraham attaches to the family tie:
"The first possession which the Jewish race received of their land was a row of pairs of graves which the first Jew bought to be used for his wife and then for himself, and for his son and his grandson and their respective wives. The thought of the value of the family tie which attaches the heart of husband to wife, and children to parents, was henceforth inseperably connected with the Jewish land, formed henceforth the fundamental trait of the character of the Jews..." (I, p. 386)
Moreover, we are taught the traditional Jewish attitude towards the remains of our deceased--a lesson some grave-desecrating modernists may need to take more to heart:
"Jews create no idolatry and make no parade of their feelings. They build no churches and mausoleums on their graves, nor do they deck them out as gardens. On the other hand, they know no 'time-limit.' The place where their dead rest remains holy to them forever. The idea is strange to them which allows children to honor the graves of their parents with marble and everlasting flowers, and later generations to dig them all up,and without thought or feeling, throw out the bodies to nameless heaps." (Ibid)
Why was Avraham so insistent on getting this particular cave? Remember the location: Chevron! Think about how that name, in recent months, has come to connote for some people Jewish fanaticism and "particularism." You can see that trait here, they might say, in the patriarch's stubbornness regarding this little cave.
Yet, this incident in the Chumash teaches the very opposite about
Avraham's spirit. Rabbi Elie Munk, zt'l, in his beautiful commentary, The Call of the
"For him, Judaism was the realization of the mission of Adam, that is, of man par excellence. After the ideal plan conceived for all humanity had failed, following the original sin, Avraham was the first to attempt to repair this flaw and to fulfill this calling for humanity...Avraham considered himself the successor and repository of Adam's mission, and he did not hesitate to pay any price...in order to assure himself of the ownership of the cave wherein the first couple lay buried." (Volume I, pp. 305-306)
We wanted Chevron to fulfill our "calling for humanity."
If you listen attentively to the weekly Torah portion, you can always find surprising connections between the subject matter and your own present life. Our current struggles and dilemmas as Jews, both on the personal and on the national level, are unfailingly mirrored in the ancient (read, "timeless") words of the Chumash. Year in and year out, the Torah, miraculously, keeps step with our unfolding history or, perhaps more correctly, our history often seems to unfold right out of the Torah.
Anyone who follows the news in Israel knows that both Chevron and burial grounds have been front page stories in recent months: the tiny Jewish settlement in Chevron remains stubbornly in what they claim is their ancestral home, at the mercy of an angry Arab population; the religious and secular battle over archaeological excavations and real estate developments that threaten the sanctity of ancestral gravesites.
Both issues--surprise!--are right here in the parsha: we see that Avraham tried valiantly to establish both a title to Chevron and a Jewish precedent of respect for the dead, when he closed the deal on the cave. Avraham's struggle is not dead; there are many Jews (forget about Gentiles) who are not sure where they stand on Chevron or archaeological excavations.
Who knows? Perhaps that's why Hashem was a bit wordy at the start of the parsha.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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