When approaching this week’s Parsha, the natural tendency is to focus on the two major events which lie at the heart of the sedra, the death of Sarah Imenu, and the successful search for a wife for her son, Yitzhak. While this is understandable, it might cause us to overlook what I believe is the overarching theme of our Parsha, namely the closing of circles on one hand and the continuity of the Jewish people in spite of that closure on the other. The Parsha begins with the death of Sarah Imenu and Avraham Avinu’s quest to see his beloved wife properly laid to rest. (I do not intend to be syrupy here; as we will see, the relationship between Avraham and Sarah is a critical element in our analysis). After detailing the purchase of Maarat HaMachpela and Sarah’s subsequent burial, the Torah then tells us of Avraham’s determination to find a wife for his son Yitzhak and how this is accomplished. We are then told how Avraham remarries, fathers more children, settles his affairs and peacefully passes on, to be buried side by side with Sarah. Finally, the Torah informs us of Yishamel’s progeny as well as Yishamael’s own peaceful death. Thus, the circle closes on Avraham’s eventful life, and while the account of his secondary offspring is summarized in a few brief sentences, the story of his primary descendant, Yitzhak Avinu, begins in earnest, and continues in next week’s Parsha.
The first piece that we described, the death of Sarah and Avraham’s subsequent efforts to find her a burial spot, take up some twenty passukim at the beginning of the Parsha. It is reasonable to ask why was it necessary for the Torah to go into such extensive detail in describing Avraham’s quest for and ensuing negotiation to purchase Maarat HaMachpela. Would it not have been sufficient to simply tell us that Avraham found the Maara and purchased it from Ephron the Hittite?
Amongst the Rishonim, a number of suggestions are made to address this question. The Ibn Ezra (23:19) suggests that the Torah is either coming to stress the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael for both the living and the dead, or, alternatively, to demonstrate that Hashem’s promise to Avraham Avinu that the land would become his inheritance was being fulfilled. The Ramban has difficulty with the Ibn Ezra’s approach. How he asks, does burying someone in Eretz Yisrael tell us of the uniqueness of the land? The Ibn Ezra’s second answer fares no better in the Ramban’s book. How can the purchase of a burial plot b viewed as a fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham? That promise was for the entire land and would not be fulfilled in Avraham’s lifetime, but rather in future generations. In fact, the Ramban when trying to answer the question of why the Torah tells us the story of the sale of the Maara, quotes the Gemara in Sanhedrin (111a) which notes how despite Hashem’s promise to give Avraham the land that he is forced to horse trade for the simple right to bury Sarah with honor. This represents the opposite extreme from the Ibn Ezra’s suggestion. Rather than demonstrating the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham, our story tells of a further nisayon that Avraham endured to demonstrate his faith in Hashem. (It should be noted that the Ramban quotes this answer as “Rabbotenu Amru”, our sages taught, and apparently does not adapt it as his preferred answer. For an extreme position of the purchase of Maarat HaMachpela representing a nisayon for Avraham, see the Chizkuni on 23:2.)
The Ramban himself suggests two possible approaches to answering our question, one technical, the other more philosophical. The technical answer is that it was necessary that we be aware of the location of the burial place of the Avot so that we can properly honor the place. The other answer brings us to the heart of Avraham’s place in the society within which he dwelled. Avraham is a stranger in Hittite society, a fact he himself acknowledges when he refers to himself as “ger v’toshav anochi imachem” (23:4) I am a stranger and resident amongst you. This is true, and is in fact what lies at the crux of the resistance to selling him the maara. In ancient society land stayed within the tribe, to sell it to outsiders was something that was simply not done. Furthermore, the act of burying ones dead in a private plot was the most emphatic exclamation point that can be placed upon one’s permanence in a place. Thus, Avraham had to conduct a long and wearying negotiation in order to overcome the opposition to this acquisition, and the negotiation had to be done with the approval of not only the seller, but of the entire Hittite society hierarchy. Nonetheless, notes the Ramban, even prior to this approval Avraham is honored, even revered, in this society. It is not merely lip service that is being paid when the Hittites refer to Avraham as “Nasi Elokim”, a prince of the Lord. Thus, says the Ramban we see that the blessing given Avraham, that his name would be exalted and a source of blessing, has already been fulfilled in his lifetime.
What is missing from all of these answers is a clear statement of why it was necessary for the Torah to go into such detail when relating the acquisition of the Maara. Each of the points made above (with the exception of the Rabbotenu Amru, which we have already suggested was not the Ramban’s central position), could just as easily be made without having the Torah relate the detailed negotiation. Why then was it necessary to do so?
Rav Elchanan Samet addresses this question by looking at the central words and phrases (“milim manchot”) which are repeated throughout the story. Rav Samet notes that a variation of the word “kever” appears no less than thirteen times in the Parsha while Sarah herself is referred to (either by name or by use of the phrase “meit”, the deceased) the same number of times in the Parsha. (This analysis may be founding Iyunim b’Parshat HaShavua , the second series. Rav Samet asks our question on the first approach of the Ibn Ezra only; I am not sure why he does not extend it to the other explanations. It should also be noted that the Abarbanel offers an answer to the question in his commentary to our Parsha).
When looking at these words the initial reaction (it was certainly mine) tends to be one of skepticism. How else can the Torah describe the story of the death of Sarah Imenu and the purchase of Maarat HaMachpela without constantly referring to the two? This, however, says Rav Samet, is precisely the point. Quoting the early 20th century German commentator, Beno Yaakov, Rav Samet suggests that the entire point of the story is to simply demonstrate the depth of Avraham’s love and devotion to Sarah, the final honor that he was able to give her. The Torah tells us the story of Avraham’s negotiation in detail, because that was the central effort that he had to make in order to give proper honor to her. The exorbitant price that he paid for Maarat HaMachpela was part and parcel of this honor as well.
The burial of Sarah represents the first death that is portrayed by the Torah in detail. It is certainly the first death of a personality that we care about as Jews, and is in fact one of the most fully described (with perhaps only the death of Yaakov Avinu taking up more passukim, depending on which parts of that story you count as describing his death). As such, the concern, sensitivity and sacrifice that Avraham demonstrates also carries with it an aspect of Maaseh Avot Siman L’Banim, the behavior of our forefathers acts a compass for future generations.
Finally, the story of Sarah’s death and burial is echoed at the end of our Parsha, when the Torah tells us of the death and burial of Avraham Avinu. A careful comparison of the Passukim in the two stories (23:1-20 vs. 25:7-10) reveal the use of several highly similar and even identical phrases. There can be little doubt about the link between the two narratives. Thus, our Parsha represents the closing of the circle of the lives of Avraham and Sarah, while at the very same time introducing us to the continuing saga of the Avot, through the lives of Yitzhak and Rivka.