The Rabbi Writes
The Rabbi Writes
G-D’S CHALLENGE TO MAN
This week’s Biblical reading focuses on two episodes, both narrated at length and in intricate detail: A) Abraham buys a field as a burial place for Sarah, and B) he directs his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Why these two events? The simple answer is because they happened. That, however, cannot be all. We misunderstand Torah if we regard it merely as a Jewish history book. Torah defines its own genre, which is to instruct. So what is the Torah teaching here?
Abraham receives two promises. The first is about land. Time and again he is told, by G-d, that the land to which he has traveled will one day be his. “Look north, south, east and west. All the land that you see, I will give you and your offspring forever.” (13:14) The second was the promise of children as in, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.” (13:16)
These are remarkable commitments. The land in its length and breadth will be Abraham’s and his children’s as “an everlasting possession.” Abraham will have as many children as the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. What, though, is the reality when Sarah dies? Abraham owns no land and has only one son (his other child, Ishmael, will not be the bearer of the covenant and thus cannot be the fulfillment of G-d’s promise).
The significance of the two episodes now becomes clear. First, Abraham undergoes a lengthy bargaining process with the Hittites to buy a burial plot. It is a tense, even humiliating, encounter. The Hittites say one thing, but mean another. Their generosity is a façade. In fact, they will drive hard a bargain. Abraham knows he is “an alien and a stranger,” meaning, among other things, that he has no easy way to acquire land. He can request it, demand it, even fight for it, but he understands that he will have to negotiate.
Abraham is not deterred. Finally, the final transfer of ownership is recorded in precise legal prose. Abraham now owns part of the promise. True, it is a small part; one field and a cave. But that is all of the Divine pledge of the land that Abraham will see in his lifetime.
The next chapter tells of Abraham’s concern that Isaac should have a wife. After all, the young man is already forty years old and still unmarried. Abraham has a child but no grandchild, in other words, no posterity. As with the purchase of the cave, so here: acquiring a daughter-in-law will require money and difficult negotiation. His servant, Eliezer, on arriving in the vicinity of Abraham’s family, immediately finds the girl before he has even finished praying for G-d’s help. Securing her release from her family is another matter. He brings out gold and silver. He gives her brother and mother costly gifts. They celebrate with a meal. But when Eliezer wants to leave, the family obfuscates by arguing, “Let the girl stay home for another year.” Just as with Ephron, the show of kindness conceals a tough, even exploitative, determination to make a profitable deal. Eventually patience pays off. Rebecca leaves. Isaac marries her. The covenant will continue.
These then are no minor episodes. They tell a difficult story. Yes, Abraham will have a land and future offspring. But these things will not happen soon or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most resolute willpower will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it seemed at first: a statement that G-d will act. It is in fact an invitation, from G-d to Abraham and his children that they should act. G-d will help them. The outcome will be what G-d said it would. But not without total commitment from Abraham’s family against what will sometimes seem to be insurmountable obstacles.
A land and children offers Abraham a glimpse that Jewish continuity is possible. Four thousand years later, Israel and our children remain the dominant concerns of Jews; the safety and security of Israel as the Jewish home, and the future of the Jewish people (“Will we have Jewish grandchildren?”). Abraham’s hopes and fears are ours.
Is there any other people, whose concerns today are what they were four millennia ago? So now as then, the Divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to G-d; this idea has no place in the teachings of Torah to man. To the contrary: the covenant is G-d’s challenge to us, not ours to G-d.
Faith does not mean passivity. It is having the courage to act and never to be deterred. What Abraham realized then, and what we had better recognize now, is that G-d is depending on us. The future, as G-d promised, will happen, but it is we - taught, inspired, empowered, and given strength by Torah - who must bring it about.