parsha of the week

Chayei Sarah: Free land for dead Jews


Sarah dies, and Avraham approaches the local Hittites and asks to speak to Ephron ben Tzochar, “that he should give me to me the Machpelah cave at the edge of his field, for its full price, [to be used as] a burial plot” (Bereishit 23:9).

Ephron responds, “I’ll give it you for free! In front of everyone! It’s yours! Bury your dead!” (23:11)

Avraham is appreciative, but declines: “I’m giving you the money. Take it from me. Then I will bury my dead.”

Ephron thinks it over. “A land of 400 silver shekels — between friends, not such a big deal, right? —  then you can bury your dead” (23:15).

The next verse should say that Avraham paid the money and buried his dead. After all, those two points have been raised in every verse up until now.

But the Torah takes three verses to describe the transaction, and the transfer of the land, the field, and the cave to Avraham’s ownership. It takes pains to identify this space, presumably to make clear that this was a big purchase, made by Avraham for his family as an eternal burial spot. This was a purchase and transfer of property for all time.

After the purchase has been made and the property transferred, clearly, so that everyone understands, only then does Avraham bury his wife. And when he buries her, the Torah again gives geographical markers to let us know where: “Near Mamre, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan.”

There are many attitudes ascribed to Ephron, mostly negative, in his pivot from “free” to exorbitant, in his wheeler-dealer negotiations, in his offering much but giving little, in his greediness, or in his faux friendship.

But in light of the tragic events last Shabbos at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think there’s a much simpler lesson.

The Ephrons of the world are very happy to give away free land to dead Jews. It’s a small price to pay for a heinous goal. Ephron’s hesitation at selling land to Avraham was that he’d be giving Avraham a place to call his own, one that he and his descendants could point to and say, “We own it because we paid for it. It is ours.”

And that is why the Torah doesn’t just describe a small burial cave as the purchase, but a field and a cave and all the trees around it, around the complete border of the property — all of it now belonging to Avraham.

A friend of mine, who is involved in education in New York City, shared this story from his Monday morning commute: “Just took the crosstown bus and a ‘nice older white gentleman’ sits next to me and is reading the paper. I tell him that I am getting off at the next stop and he nods. As I get up to pass him, he says, ‘That synagogue deserved to get shot up ... have a wonderful day’.”

An individual racist is not necessarily representative of an entire society. Most people were horrified and condemned the act of violence. Some used it to score political points. But the fact is that the shooter wasn’t just a crazed loon who wanted to kill people. He shouted, “All Jews must die!” and he walked into a synagogue to carry out his evil actions. There is nothing more anti-Semitic than that, especially when attached to an active firearm.

And the fact that some random disgusting person would cowardly say that to my friend as he got off the bus, giving him no chance to respond, goes to show how evil at heart some seemingly normal people might be.

And as much as we enjoy life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the fact is that Jew-hatred is all around us. The ADL’s count of incidents of anti-Semitic attacks rises every year. The anti-Israel movement on college campuses and beyond would not happen if Israel were not a Jewish country. It still makes no sense, but it happens because many people have an unexplainable “Jew” setting in their minds that makes them irrational about Jewish people, Jewish institutions, Jewish activities, and a Jewish state.

If America is tolerant — and I believe that institutionally it is, that most people don’t care enough to hate Jews — then the Ephrons of the world need to be outshouted and overpowered by those who believe Jews are allowed to live and thrive.

It would be naïve to suggest that all ideological differences between Jews will disappear. Some will never go away. But the blame game for evil acts goes squarely on those who commit evil acts, or who dehumanize Jews. Which is why those who blame this particular evil act on a mainstream American political party are absolutely in the wrong.

Ephron’s attitude is like that of the anti-Semites who followed him in history, that “the only good Jew is a dead Jew.”

Anyone who rejects that statement, as all good people should, must take a strong stand: anti-Semitism has no place in the modern world.

May G-d eradicate evil from the face of the earth, and may the Pittsburgh Jewish community feel the love from around the world, and with G-d’s help, find healing.