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Always Strangers in a Strange Land

11/10/2023 01:39:33 PM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Chayei Sarah, in which Sarah dies, Abraham purchases his first piece of land in Ha’Aretz, and Isaac gets married off to a woman he’s never met. I know I say this a lot, but there’s a lot happening in this parasha. There’s also a lot happening in the world right now, and I have to admit it was hard to focus and find a single solid message this week to write about. 

The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah is often used rhetorically as the beginning of Jewish ownership of the Holy Land. It’s true that God has already told him to go to this Promised Land and that it shall be the home for his many descendants, but then there were famines and Abraham had to move his family about, and there were doubts as to the possibility of him even having descendants. It is this purchase, which Abraham insists upon, that solidifies this place as his homeland, and that of all his descendants forever. 

But like a lot of things in the Torah or the Tanakh, real human history has unfolded independently from the ideals of our ancestors and the God depicted in these ancient texts. Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, a seminal American Modern Orthodox rabbi, compares Abraham’s language as he insists upon formal sale of the land, with fair market price and a deed to prove it, with the ongoing realities of the diasporic Jewish people for most of our history. 

Abraham in the parasha says, “‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’ ....[Ephron of the Hittites said] 'No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.’ Then Abraham bowed low before the landowning citizens, and spoke to Ephron in the hearing of the landowning citizens, saying, ‘If only you would hear me out! Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.’” 

Rav Soloveitchik’s commentary on this is that “Abraham's definition of his dual status, we believe, describes with profound accuracy the historical position of the Jew who resides in a predominantly non-Jewish society. He was a resident, like other inhabitants of Canaan, sharing with them a concern for the welfare of society, digging wells, and contributing to the progress of the country in loyalty to its government and institutions. Here, Abraham was clearly a fellow citizen, a patriot among compatriots, joining others in advancing the common welfare. However, there was another aspect, the spiritual, in which Abraham regarded himself as a stranger. His identification and solidarity with his fellow citizens in the secular realm did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness. His was a different faith and he was governed by perceptions, truths, and observances which set him apart from the larger faith community. In this regard, Abraham and his descendants would always remain ‘strangers.’” 

From the beginning of history, Jews have always been a minority, carving out our place in the world on the values of universal human rights. Judaism has always believed that certain rules for honoring our God and the world God created are incumbent upon us, but that the peoples of the world can have their own rules for honoring their God or gods or vision of our shared God and our shared world and still have a place in the world to come. Judaism has always danced on the mechitza separating our uniqueness and our commitment to universality. I believe that to be our greatest gift to ourselves, and to the world. 

Sometimes, though, that particularity has confused others, and when people in power feel confused about a minority of perceived outsiders, it seems to be the norm to try to force that minority to conform, or leave, or make their difference more obvious so as to let others steer clear of them, or - in the worst case scenarios - to die. I cannot say that that’s all in the past, but I can say that I don’t think living in a constant state of existential alarm has been good for our collective psyches. Let us bury our fears and our trauma and vengeful bloodlust in a spiritual cave that can never be built over and desecrated. Let us honor the reality behind those feelings, how they have sometimes kept us safe, and put away how they have harmed us. And then, let us build with love a world where our people are safe and behave as a light unto the nations, a reality in which Jews and non-Jews live peacefully and cooperatively side-by-side with no religious governmental bodies exerting themselves over others. 

Right now, I see our people spilling innocent blood in our Holy Land, and I see our people’s innocent blood being spilled all over the world. Mosques and synagogues set ablaze, vandalized, stormed by hate-filled fear-mongers. But we all trace ourselves back to that same father, Avraham Ivinu, and we must remember to emulate the care he took to respect his dead beloved, and we must also learn from the Hittites to care for the dead of the Other, to comfort the bereaved whoever they are. It is a heartbreaking and nervous-making time for our community, but we must not lose sight of who we are, who we have always been. And may we soon see peace, in this land, in the Holy Land, and in all lands. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784