by Daniel Pinner
“The life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years – the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba – that is Hebron in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to eulogise Sarah and to mourn her. And Abraham arose from before his dead one, and spoke to the children of Heth saying: I am an outsider and a resident with you; give me a burial-site with you, and I will bury my dead one before me” (Genesis 23:1-4).
Just a few verses earlier, Abraham had reached the pinnacle of his life, when he took his beloved son Isaac to Mount Moriah, ready and willing to sacrifice him. “They went, both of them together” (22:6), before Isaac knew what awaited him; and even after Isaac understood what awaited him “they went, both of them together” (v.8), “the one to bind and the other to be bound, the one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (Genesis Rabbah 56:4), and nonetheless “with equal heart [i.e. with the same level of dedication]” (Rashi, Genesis 22:8). And when this heart-rending test was over and the father and son rejoiced at the infinite and eternal merit and blessing that G-d had bestowed upon them, “they went together to Beer Sheva” (22:19).
Since Abraham’s family were living in Hebron before the binding of Isaac, and Sarah was still in Hebron, and since the binding itself took place on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), Beer Sheva must have been no more than a way-station to pause at on their journey from Jerusalem southwards back to Hebron. Hence the Torah’s statement that “Abraham came to eulogise Sarah” – “Abraham came from the Temple Mount, and he found her dead” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 23:2). “Where was he coming from? – Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Simon said: He was coming from Mount Moriah” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:2, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:1).
The blow to Abraham must have been devastating: he had been reconciled to sacrificing his son, was overjoyed at the reprieve – and came home to find that his beloved wife was dead. And it could only have compounded his grief that he did not even have a grave in which to bury his wife: in the midst of his mourning, he had to negotiate with the Hittites, with Ephron their devious leader, even bow to the landed gentry of the Hittites, in order to purchase the Machpela Cave to bury Sarah.
Decades earlier, G-d had promised Abra[ha]m that he would inherit the Land of Israel for himself and his descendants for eternity: “To your seed will I give this Land” (Genesis 12:7); “Raise up your eyes now and see – from the place where you are – northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; because all the land that you see – to you will I give it and to your seed forever” (13:14-15); “I am Hashem, Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this Land, to inherit it” (15:7). And now, half a lifetime on, the Land was not yet his, he was still an outsider who had to request permission to buy a plot of earth.
Even more galling was that he had to buy this plot from the Hittites. When Abram had first entered Canaan, “the Canaanite was then in the Land” (12:6). Not long afterwards, upon returning to Canaan after his brief sojourn in Egypt during the famine, suddenly “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the Land” (13:7). Now, all this time later, the Hittites – the descendents of Heth – were controlling Hebron and its environs. At every stage, a new nation popped up in the Land, each one claiming to be the indigenous inhabitants. Clearly, Abraham had been in Hebron long before the Hittites (13:18) – but nonetheless, he had to submit to their authority.
The Mishnah states that “G-d tested Abraham with ten tests” (Pirkei Avot 5:3), but does not tell us what those ten tests were. Different commentators offer various different opinions; according to Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263), the tenth test was his having to buy the Machpela Cave. This is in direct contrast to all the other commentators, who see the Binding of Isaac as the final test; but Rabbeinu Yonah’s view gives us a deep insight into all the other tests.
A broad consensus of the commentators (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26-31, Rashi, Rambam, Rabbeinu Yonah, Rabbi Ovadiyah of Bartinura, the Vilna Ga’on) presents Abraham’s ten trials as: being cast into a furnace in Ur of the Chaldees by Nimrod rather than worshipping idols (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 11:28, Genesis Rabbah 38:13); the command to leave his homeland (Genesis 12:1); the subsequent famine in Canaan that forced him to flee to Egypt (12:10ff); Pharaoh’s abducting Sarah (v. 15); his war against the four kings (14:14ff); marrying Hagar after despairing of having any children by Sarah (16:1-4); circumcising himself when he was 99 years old (17:24); the king of Gerar’s abducting Sarah (20:1-2); expelling his concubine Hagar and his son Ishmael (21:9-14); the binding of Isaac (chapter 22).
Each of these ten trials threatened the abortion of the as-yet-unborn Jewish nation and its task in history: in each of them, Abraham was presented with a situation that, had he taken the wrong decision, the nation could never have sprung from his loins. Had Abraham worshipped the idols in Ur in order to save his life, he would never have regained the spiritual heights necessary to become Abraham “our father”; and had he entered the furnace with insufficient faith in G-d, he would have been incinerated there and then. In either case, he could never have brought forth the Jewish nation. Similarly, had he remained in his homeland, or abandoned Sarah, or abandoned Lot to the four kings (or lost that war and been captured or killed), or not circumcised himself, or allowed Isaac to be corrupted by the influence of Hagar and Ishmael, the nation could never have arisen.
Being forced to buy the Machpela Cave from the Hittites, who had only recently invaded the Land, could have been terribly demoralizing for Abraham. Just as the command to sacrifice Isaac cast a doubt over the very future existence of his offspring, so too being forced to buy his own land from a foreign invader cast a doubt over G-d’s fundamental promise that this Land was his. But Abraham “stood firm in all [the tests]” (Pirkei Avot).
Abraham may not have understood it at the time, but centuries later his descendents would understand that being a stranger in his own country was actually G-d’s kindness: He had long since decreed that Abraham’s seed would be “strangers in a land not theirs…for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). Had Abraham been the master of his Land, then this 400-year period could only have started ticking down with the exile to Egypt, and his descendants would have spent four complete centuries under Egyptian oppression. In the event, however, precisely because Abraham was a stranger in his own country, Isaac was already born as a stranger in a land not his, even in Canaan. So the 400-year countdown began with the birth of Isaac, and Abraham’s descendants would spend only 210 years in Egypt – and less than half of that as slaves (but that is another subject for another Parashah).