Thursday, October 31, 2002
Thursday is Torah day. Let's talk about the parshah. Because of thje nature of the parshah, most of this discussion will be characterological rather than theological, ethical, or classically midrashic. Which will, perhaps, make it more accessible; who knows.
This week's parshah is Chayey Sarah - "life of Sarah" - so called because the first words are "Thus was the life of Sarah." This is the standard formulation for announcing the number of years lived at the end of a life, and indeed that's how the sentence concludes. The irony - a parshah called "life of Sarah" begins with her death - has been frequently noted. Rather than dwelling on Sarah's life, the parshah dwells on the settling of Abraham's household after her death. Specifically: Abraham needs to bury his wife, and make provision for a general family burial plot in a new land (his own family's plot was presumably back in Ur of the Chaldees); he needs to marry off his son and heir; and he needs to settle his affairs generally and prepare his will.
Sad to say but true, there is a sense, with the passing of Sarah, that a much trouble has been lifted from this family. Sarah's infertility prompts her to give her handmaid Hagar to her husband. When this plan is successful, and Hagar conceives, Sarah is furious, and drives Hagar away with harrassment. When she is finally, in old age, granted a child of her own, she drives both Hagar and Abraham's son Ishmael from their house in jealousy, causing Abraham much pain. When Abraham takes Isaac up on the mountain, the near-sacrifice appears to have been sufficient to push Sarah over into the grave; indeed, there is a midrash that Satan told Sarah that Isaac was in fact murdered by his father on the mountain, and Sarah died at the report. In any event, she does not speak to Abraham again in the text before her death. We do not know how the match between Abraham and Sarah was made; unlike with Isaac and Jacob, we have no wooing scene, and no indication that it was a match that G-d had in mind. With Isaac and with Jacob, we have testimony from the text of their loves for Rececca and Rachel, respectively; we have no similar attestation of Abraham's feelings, nor of Sarah's towards him. Sarah was infertile, but unlike Elkanah or Jacob, who professed their love of their wives in spite of their infertility, the lack of an heir clearly gnawed at Abraham, and one does get a sense that his marriage never really recovered from the strain. (And we do know it was Sarah who was infertile; Abraham has numerous children at a very old age by his concubines taken after Sarah's death.)
Abraham's first act upon Sarah's death is to look for a proper burial site. There's a lovely scene of bargaining with the children of Heth, with indirect mention of the burial plot's price (an extortionate price, in fact, of 10-20 times the fair value for the land) hidden within a protestation that the land is an outright gift. The burial plot is in Hevron, and can still be visited today; it is a holy site to both Judaism and Islam, and has a massive Herodian-era building atop, still intact, constructed in the same style as (though much smaller than) the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. Hevron is a very touchy subject in contemporary terms; it has been an inhospitable city for Jews for many decades (even centuries), and currently there is a tiny, embattled Jewish enclave surrounded by one of the most hostile Arab populations in Judea and Samaria. The Jews of Hevron are among the most aggressive and extreme in their political views as well. The place they occupy is very holy to Jews, and there is an understandable loathing to give up an essential part of the Jewish physical patrimony in the land. Moreover, it is a part of the patrimony where the title could not be clearer: the bible states twice that Abraham, by his purchase of the field, established an uncontested title to the land for eternity. By contrast, much of the land of Israel is deeded to Israel by G-d and by right of conquest by Joshua, but not by legal contract with its prior owners and inhabitants. In some sense, then, Israel has a better title to Hevron than to anywhere in Israel. And yet it is difficult to see how the holy city can be retained without violence. What is to be done?
I think a useful insight into this question comes from Maimonides, who opined on the question of whether one is permitted to walk on the Temple Mount where once the Temple in Jerusalem stood. Maimonides argued that it is not permitted to do so, and the reason is that the Holy of Holies is still in operation, even though the building around it has been destroyed, and by walking on the Mount one might trespass on the Holy of Holies, which is a terribly grave sin, as that spot can only legitimately be entered by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the most awesome day of the year. Why, then, does he argue that the Holy of Holies is still in existence? The reason, he argues, is that while the First Temple was built on conquered land - David took the city from the Jebusites, and his son, Solomon, built the First Temple - the Second Temple was built on purchased land, and with the permission (indeed, the encouragement) of the conqueror, the Emperor of Persia. Since the First Temple was established on violence, it could be destroyed by violence; since the Second Temple was established by consent and contract, it could not be destroyed by violence.
What are the implications? I draw several. First, since the Machpelah burial cave of Hevron, like the Second Temple in Jerusalem, was established by contract and consent, the title is secure, and cannot be voided by subsequent conquests. But second, I note that the current inhabitants have their own claims based on residence and descent from Ishmael and so forth, and that it is therefore necessary, on a religious level, to establish our own claims as uncontested; for if the claims are pressed by violence, they may be voided by violence. But yet third, since the Jewish claim to Hevron is based on ancient and uncontested title, it can only be voided in an ultimate sense by consent and contract; therefore, if Israel wishes to retain that claim, and not repudiate Abraham's purchase, it must not consent to the surrender of those claims. To summarize: the Jewish people have a legitimate claim; they should not press that claim violently lest they risk having that claim voided; and neither should they surrender that claim voluntarily, for there is no turning back from such a surrender.
This analysis of Hevron holds infinitely more significance for Jerusalem. When Prime Minister Barak was negotiating at Camp David and Taba for the future of Jerusalem, and offered to give up the Temple Mount to non-Jewish sovereignty, most of the discussion focused on the practical absurdities of this decision. But there was a deeper problem: by offering to surrender Jewish claims to this place, Barak put in terrible danger the Jewish character of the State of Israel. For, had the offer been accepted, religious Jews would have been faced with two possibilities. Either (a) the Jewish people had relinquished voluntarily their claim to the Holy of Holies - and, by implication, to the possibility of the reconstruction of the Temple there - which is religiously impossible; or (b) the decisions of the State of Israel have no enduring significance for the Jewish people, a conclusion which would make it difficult to sustain the proposition that Israel is a Jewish State (as opposed to being a state with a lot of Jewish citizens). I hope that, when the time comes for a new attempt to resolve the problem of the two peoples in the Land (and the time will eventually come, however many decades it takes) that the leaders of the Jewish State have enough Jewish consciousness to take these considerations into account in their negotiations. After all, Yasser Arafat, not a particularly good Muslim, took them into account on his side; he argued that he had no authority to negotiate about Jerusalem and its holy places because they were the property of all Muslims for all time, and not only for the Palestinians in this generation. Even more so for Jews and our holy places.
Enough of today's problems; back to the text. After burying his wife, Abraham sets to finding a wife for his son. Now this whole bit of narrative is very strange, and forces one to ask: why does Isaac not go himself? Why is Eliezer sent instead? Isaac is no longer young; he is old enough to wive. Jacob, his son, will woo his own wife, as will Esau, as will Moses. Moreover, even if it were improper to woo on his own, why would not the two go together? Isaac's passivity is marked his whole life: he is the passive near-victim on Mount Moriah; his wife is chosen for him and brought back to him; and, as we will see in the next parshah, his wife is the prime mover in their household, working behind Isaac's back to establish the inheritance of the blessing by her favored son, Jacob. It is striking, moreover, that when Rebecca first comes to Isaac, the text says that by this means was Isaac comforted for the loss of his mother. It is a strange man of full age of whom you would talk this way; his relation to the world seems almost childlike here. Isaac is markedly successful in his endeavors, digging wells and otherwise improving the land. But he is terribly passive in his relations with people.
(An aside: Robert Alter notes that the wooing-at-the-well appears to be a biblical trope or type-scene. Imagine that there is an archetypal wooing-at-the-well scene, where the hero comes to the well, gives water to a maiden, and is then brought in to meet her father and be matched with her. Now see how the various biblical well-wooing scenes vary from this archetype, and how that variance sheds light on the relationships in question. First, Isaac does not go to the well himself; rather, his father sends a messenger to woo for him. Then, rather than the wooing man providing the maiden with water, the maiden provides him (or his father's servant) with water. All this points up Isaac's passivity and Recebba's strong-willed nature, which will play out throughout their marriage. In the next generation, Jacob woos at the well. In his case, it is necessary for him to remove a heavy stone to get at the water. This prefigures the struggle Jacob will have to win his wife, Rachel, from the wily Laban, her father. Finally, in the Book of Exodus, Moses will come to a well in the land of Midian and drive away bandits who are harrassing the daughters of Jethro; afterward he is matched with Jethro's daughter, Miriam. This certainly ties in well with Moses' own career as his people's liberator. It's a neat pattern, isn't it?)
This passivity is troubling. One wonders whether it has something to do with Rebecca's falling from her mount when she first spies her promised husband. The trait is so pronounced that one modern rabbi - Avi Weiss - has speculated whether Isaac was afflicted with Downs Syndrome. (This is something of a polemical point with him, not a serious historical or midrashic one, since Rabbi Weiss has had a long and noble involvement in the effort to bring Jews with mental and other disabilities into the religious community.) But, as with people with Downs, Isaac's passivity appears to be tied to some very positive traits. In spite of their troubled history, Isaac clearly has a positive relationship with Ishmael and Hagar. Isaac waits for his bride in Be'er le-Hai Ro'i; this is where Hagar had her comforting visitation from the angel when she fled from Sarah's harrassment, and where, according to midrash, she had settled, and Isaac was paying her a visit there. (After Abraham's death, Isaac settles in the same area.) And when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together in the cave. Abraham clearly feared that his son, Isaac, would not be able to hold his own against his half-brothers. While Sarah made him send off Ishmael, no one forced him to send off his numerous sons by his later concubine, Keturah. He did it of his own volition, while he was alive, and presumably in order to shield Isaac from the threat that they would seize his inheritance, since Isaac was named sole heir in Abraham's will. In any event, while that may have been prudent, it is striking that Ishmael - who overran all his brothers, and became a great king - seems to have remained on basically good terms with Isaac, his passive, simple and holy younger brother.
(Another aside: each of the patriarchs is responsible for inaugurating one of the three daily prayer services. Abraham, who waited outside his tent in the morning for the visiting angels, is responsible for the longest service, the shacharit or dawn service. Isaac, who meditated in the field at the onset of evening, is responsible for the minchah, or afternoon service (aside with the aside: I believe the root of the word is the same as the word for "rest" which would suggest that this is the "siesta" service!). And Jacob is responsible for the ma'ariv or evening service, said after dark which is, according to the Jewish reckoning, actually the beginning of the next day. Since the shacharit service is ideally said at dawn, at the beginning of one's day, and the ma'ariv can be said at the very end of the day, before retiring, they fit neatly into the daily routine. The minchah service, on the other hand, is a break in the routine. One who regularly prays the minchah service is therefore considered to be particularly pious. Another point in Isaac's favor - and again, I think, not unconnected with his general unworldliness and consequent passivity.)
Abraham dies satisfied - "full" literally. The bible does not say this of many other men. (Does it say it of any?) The contrast to Jacob, who becomes Israel, is particularly striking; when Jacob meets Pharaoh in his old age, all he can do when asked his age is to summarize the woes and misery of his life ("few and evil have been the days of the life of your servant"). I wonder if seeing Isaac living near Hagar gave him comfort and satisfaction when he knew that he, Abraham, would soon be sleeping beside Sarah.