from the heart of jerusalem

If everything can change, what really counts?


Eternity. What does it mean? Does anything really last forever?

Many years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness on an empty Jerusalem road, I discovered just how fleeting life can be. After a very late night studying with my students after a prolonged trip overseas, as I was headed home for what I thought would be a peaceful Shabbat and a chance to reconnect with my wife and kids, I fell asleep at the wheel. I was awakened when my tiny Peugeot 104 wrapped itself around an electric pole.

The impact was so powerful that my wife would later describe the steering wheel as completely bent by the force of my body crashing into it. The steel pen in my shirt pocket was bent in half.

While I did not know this at the time, I had broken almost all my ribs, and my spleen had been ruptured. All I knew was that in all the pain I was experiencing I could not move my arms or legs, so I was convinced I had been paralyzed. I had bitten down and cut open my tongue (which would later require almost 40 stitches) and was bleeding profusely. (What do they always do in the movies when they want you to know one of the characters, say, in a gun battle, is going to die? They have blood running out of his mouth! The character sees the blood and gets it: he is dying. So I was absolutely sure I was dying.)

The irony was not lost on me: after all of my experiences in Lebanon and in the army, it was a careless driving accident that was going to be the end of me.

It is impossible to describe the intense wave of sadness that washed over me: Who would walk our eldest daughter Maayan, then aged five, to her wedding chuppah? Would Yonatan, then aged two, even remember me at his Bar Mitzvah? Who would come to the door and tell my wife the news; how would she manage? What little had I even accomplished in my life? At age 31, had I left the world much different than when I found it?

Eventually, someone found me, the ambulance came and after two days in the ICU (along with my father-in-law’s intervention which saved my life) Hashem gave me a second chance to get it right.

            What, in the end, really matters in this world? This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, finds Avraham contemplating this as he prepares to bury his beloved wife Sarah.

The Torah devotes an inordinate amount of time to Avraham’s attempts to bury his wife; up until this point in the Torah, people simply died. When Noach died (Bereishit 9:29), it was concisely reported that he was 950 years.

The commentaries note that Avraham uses a fascinating turn of phrase in his negotiations with the Hittites to secure a burial site: “Ger ve’Toshav anochi imachem” (literally, “I am a stranger and an inhabitant amongst you”). Why does Avraham describe himself in such paradoxical terms? Is he a stranger, or is he a resident?

Rav Shlomo Riskin notes that we find this exact phrase in the parsha of Behar when the Torah tells us that in the jubilee (50th or yovel) year, the land must return to its original owners: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are strangers and settlers with me” “Ki Gerim ve’ ve’Toshavim atem imadi” (Vayikra 25:23).

The Torah is challenging us to consider what really lasts in this world: what do we really own?

The first chapter of tractate Baba Metzia deals with cases involving conflicts of ownership. Shnayim Ochzin considers with two individuals both claiming a garment and the Talmud delineates a variety of cases with a similar theme. The midrash elaborates on one of these cases: “Zeh omer shel avotai, ve’zeh omer shel avotai.”

Two individuals are arguing over the ownership of a parcel of land. Each claims to have inherited the property, but neither can prove ownership — they have no witnesses, no contract, and not even a provable status of possession. So they ask the local rabbi to resolve their dispute.

The rabbi, after hearing both sides, responds: “I have heard both of your arguments neither of which is stronger than the other, so let’s ask the land!” Whereupon he bends over cupping his hand to his ear as it were, trying to “hear” what the land has to say.

One imagines the two litigants looking at each other wondering whether they have come to the wrong rabbi who must be certifiable. But the rabbi straightens up, looks at the litigants and declares: “The land says it’s not yours, and it’s not yours; you’re it’s!” (“Ki me’afar atah ve’el afar tashuv”) — “for you are from the dust and you will return to the dust” (Bereishit 3: 19). In other words, we don’t really own anything in this world; if anything, the world owns us.

A close reading of the verses in our parsha indicate that the Hittites don’t really take Avraham’s desire for a burial plot seriously. After all, who is Avraham? An old man with one son who is not even married and a crazy system of belief that no one in the world has bought into. They offer to give him the land for free, perhaps recognizing that eventually they can eventually reclaim it for own purposes, once Avraham, already an old man, is gone.

But much as the Torah is reminding us that in the jubilee year property and ownership is not what lasts, Avraham is making a point here —we are only temporary dwellers on this earth and are merely strangers and travelers passing through. Eternity is about the things we accomplish that can never be undone — the kindnesses we do, and the meaningful life messages we leave behind for our children and those we loved to carry on. In short, all that Sarah came to represent. In that way, we are inhabitants; we make an impression that lasts eternally. Hence we bury our dead in the ground, because the earth cannot be destroyed. (Indeed, in Jewish law if a person safeguards an item he is guarding by burying it in the earth he will not be liable for its destruction.)

One of the great challenges in life, as we struggle with the distractions of the physical all around us, is to remember that money, power, and all the “things” we accumulate, are not what bring us happiness. Really lasts is the good that we do, and the people we touch.

The burial plot Avraham acquires is actually the first time a Jew actually owns a portion of the land of Israel. In the diaspora, despite the growing acceptance of Jews, we would do well to ask ourselves: are we really toshavim, full-fledged citizens accepted as equals, or are today’s “Hittites” reminding us that we are really gerim, strangers?

Perhaps there is only one place a Jew can truly be at home, and that’s what makes Israel such a powerful and meaningful place for Jews. It is the same home where, 4,000 years ago, the first Jew made a statement challenging us all to consider what really matters in this world.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.