Genesis Honoring the Past by Looking Forward
Reading this week’s Torah reading, this week, is almost physically painful.
The parasha (Torah reading) — named after “Sarah’s life,” but beginning with her death — begins with the elaborately described process of Abraham’s acquiring a burial place for his wife. The description takes up an entire chapter of Genesis. Everyone in this passage seems to speak with utmost appreciation and respect for the person or group they are addressing.
Abraham dwells among the Hittites in the land of Canaan, and he asks them to sell him a burial site. Apparently reflecting a positive relationship between this foreigner and his host culture (along with a recognition of his special relationship with God), the Hittites invite him to take whichever site he chooses. He chooses the Cave of Machpelah, and asks them to advocate on his behalf with a man named Ephron (since the cave is on the edge of Ephron’s land), so that Abraham might buy it.
Ephron, it turns out, is right there among the group of Hittites with whom Abraham is speaking, and he spontaneously and generously offers the land as a gift. Abraham insists on purchasing the land (rather than accepting the gift), at the price he has named; the transaction is completed publicly; and Sarah is buried.
This narrative is characterized by respectful coexistence and utmost concern for both good relationships between people (and peoples), and clear and appropriate ways of acquiring land and establishing a connection to it. Everyone within it wants to demonstrate their appreciation of the other and their desire to do things the right way. They almost fall all over each other as if trying to win a contest over who can be more deferential, more appropriate, more considerate. Whether feigned or real or somewhere in between, their gentlemanly conduct facilitates the flow of the narrative and thus the resolution of the issue of Sarah’s burial.
The contrast between the tenor of this text and recent — and ongoing — events in the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories is enough to make all of Abraham’s children weep. There is so much to lament: Violence. Fear. Intransigence. Despair. Hatred.
Our lamentation is something that tragically unites so many Jews across the political spectrum — along with many Palestinians and other Arabs, and people in other cultures and countries and faith traditions — and across our various degrees and kinds of sureness about who is most at fault, what needs to be done and where things can go from here. Even if we don’t know each other, even if we can’t see each other, our lamentation joins us together, our tears drawing from and returning to the same source.
While the middle of this parasha — and its longest section — is concerned with the marriage of Isaac (another item in Abraham’s checklist of continuity for his family and his people), the end of it returns again to burial, this time that of Abraham himself: “And Abraham breathed his last breath, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” The text goes on to report that both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael — though long estranged, we should note — bury him, next to Sarah in the cave of Machpelah.
Before the Torah continues in the next parasha with the story of Isaac and his family (which will become the story of the Jewish people as a whole), it first takes the time to tell us the beginning of the story of Ishmael’s line. After all, he too has received the divine promise that he will be the father of a great nation. We learn the names of his 12 sons — the same number of sons that Isaac’s own son, Jacob, will eventually have, the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Like Jacob’s, Ishmael’s sons are chiefs of their tribes and have encampments named after them. They, too, have their story.
When Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered in East Jerusalem this summer, Rachel Fraenkel (whose own son had been murdered days before) called from her home, where she was sitting “shiva” (the first week of intense mourning after the loss of a close relative) to express her condolences to Mohammed’s family and to briefly share their sorrows. A Jewish antiracism group in Israel, Tag Meir, organized a trip to visit the family, and hundreds went. Israelis and Arabs, briefly, wept together.
Can we, Abraham’s descendants, follow not only the example at the parasha’s end — of Isaac and Ishmael, coming together on rare occasions in mourning and remembrance — but also that of Abraham and Ephron? Can we find — in the conflicts over ancient land and contemporary politics — opportunities to go above and beyond what a situation strictly requires, expressing respect for the other’s needs and desires, honoring their very existence? And can we do all this, like Abraham, in a way that also serves our self-interest?
I am not suggesting that Abraham’s acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah is somehow a model for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — indeed, as a policy analyst friend of mine often says, the Torah is not a blueprint for Middle East politics. But every bit of Abraham’s narrative is our legacy. Our ancestor, the father of both peoples and of the three Abrahamic religions, has left us his story of how attention to the particulars of respect begins the process of securing his own people’s future. We reciprocate the gift of the tales of those who came before us by mining those tales for the wisdom within them that can help us navigate the troubled waters of our own time.
Like Abraham, we honor the past and those who are no longer with us by looking with both pragmatism and hope towards the future — and by seeking out ways to treat with respect the others with whom we share not only ancestry and history, but the peaceful future for which we pray and work.
Susan Fendrick is Senior Research Associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. A Conservative rabbi and an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, she draws on her background in women’s studies and her training as a hospital chaplain in much of her work, and uses bibliodramatic techniques to lead explorations of biblical texts, rabbinic commentaries, and liturgy. She writes, edits, teaches and consults in Newton, MA, where she lives with her husband and children.