by Jacob Solomon
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| The Children of Heth answered Abraham… “Please hear us, my lord: you are a
prince of G-d amongst us; bury your dead in the best of our burial places…”
The Parasha opens with the story of Abraham's purchase of a burial plot for Sarah, his deceased wife. This takes the form of a detailed account of the talks between Abraham on one side, and the Hittites and Efron, on the other. The Hittites were one of the seven Canaanite nations whose lands were promised by G-d to Abraham's own descendants (15:20).
The form of the dialogue gives rise to two questions. Firstly: why did the Hittites treat Abraham with such public pomp and respect? True, Abraham was wealthy, but in their eyes he was both a foreigner and a non-believer in their idolatry. Secondly, why did Efron offer to give the burial plot for Sarah free of charge – in public? There is no Halacha forbidding the sale of land for this purpose: to this end the Hatam Sofer concludes in his Teshuvot (on Yoreh Deah 331) that it is a mitzvah to take some payment for a burial site from even a poor person.
One approach in dealing with these issues may be found by looking at the relationship between Abraham and G-d’s Law, the Torah. This then leads us to the general question of considering the effect of absolute Torah observance on the personality of the individual, and how others see him.
When G-d recounted his blessing to Isaac, he quoted Abraham’s merits: Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and he observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Laws (Toratai) (26:5). The Talmud (Yoma 21a) says that mitzvotai - 'commandments' include laws which humanity at large would accept as logical and meritorious – such as not committing acts of murder or theft. Chukotai – 'my statutes' refer to ordinances that reason cannot explain: they are royal decrees that G-d enacts for His people. Indeed, the Ramban explains that Abraham arrived at the knowledge of the entire Torah through Divine Inspiration, and that he observed the Torah voluntarily. But what does this have to do with the ways in which the Hittites – an idolatrous nation – treated Abraham with such public high regard?
The answer may be found in considering the following extract form Moses' address to the |sraelites before his death:
'See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as G-d commanded me... You shall safeguard them and you shall perform them, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples who shall hear of all these decrees and say, "surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people" ' (Deut. 4:5-6). R. Bachya comments that the wisdom inherent in the parts of the Torah that appear rational will make a great impression on people who are basically intellectually honest (even if they come out with different conclusions). This knowledge will convince them that there must also be great depths and merits in the commandments that at first sight have no humanistic explanation. Thus the presence of a true Torah personality who observes the Mitzvot faithfully in the Torah spirit will have the persona of an authentic Ben Torah. He will make a deep impression on those with whom he comes in contact – non-Jew as well as Jew. In short, they will know that they are in the presence of the great.
This helps us to answer the questions raised above. Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and he observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Laws he radiated true holiness – which was keenly felt - even by the idolatrous Hittites. Having recognized Abraham’s personal and spiritual greatness – together with his wealth, it was their natural behavior to treat him in public with great honor – even to the degree of lying about the terms of the transaction. Guests of honor receive gifts, not bills! However that did not mean that Efron was willing to forgo his burial plot without charge... and to forgo what was at least to some extent a legitimate payment.
This discussion gives us an example of how people far away from Torah values related positively to a personality who was indeed an authentic servant of G-d. We can extend this idea to explain the numerous promises in the Tenach which declare that as long as the Israelites remain absolutely faithful to their traditions, they will have nothing to fear from other nations: on the contrary, they will be respected by them.
Written by Jacob Solomon, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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