Grasping onto the Land – Sarah and the Cave of Mahpela

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

When it comes to the weekly Torah portion of Haye Sarah, it is arduous for me to ignore the growing rhetorical emphasis placed on the topic of the Cave of Mahpelah and its role as the first acquisition of land made by a Jew in the Promised Land of Canaan. In Genesis 15: 7-21, God, as we know, promises the land to Abraham. The text reads as follows:

Then He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.” And he said, “O Lord GOD, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” He answered, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.” He brought Him all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the other; but he did not cut up the bird. Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

The pact between Abraham and God creates, so to speak, a difficulty, namely the dissociation between the present in which is it formulated, and a future moment in which the descendants of this man from Ur would inherit their land – this split between the present and the future, between the state of facts characterizing the land and a distant point in time in which this state of affairs will have changed into something completely different, still causes problems. The modern reader approaching the story of the death and burial of Sarah must, in my opinion, maintain a necessary detachment from the text and the reality it describes. This is not a story of acquisition, nor is this the narration of an undeniable Jewish property of the Land of Israel – this is a story of Divine promises, of their interpretation and of their realization.

God’s promise is, for starters, undeniable:

(Gen. 17: 5-8) – “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding . I will be their God.”

An everlasting holding – hard to misinterpret that right? Well, actually that is what I wish to do – deconstruct the concept of a human being holding onto the land, grasping onto it, and claiming property over it. When Abraham approaches the Hittites in order to bury Sarah, he chooses the following words:

(Gen. 23: 3-4) – Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

Rashi interprets these two verses and the encounter between these two sides quoting the Midrash:

I AM A STRANGER AND A SETTLER WITH YOU — A stranger having come from another land, but I have settled down amongst you. A Midrashic explanation is: if you agree to sell me the land then I will regard myself as a stranger and will pay for it, but if not, I shall claim it as a settler and will take it as my legal right, because the Holy One, blessed be He, said to me, (12:7) “Unto thy seed I give this land” (Genesis Rabbah 58:6).

Rashi thus appears to interpret Abraham’s approach as one that both takes into consideration the context and the Divine Promise – first he presents himself as a stranger in a stranger’s land, one who does not own and cannot own the land and thus is willing to pay for it. Yet, if the other side fails to acknowledge his right to buy a piece of land in order to bury his dead wife, then Abraham is, in Rashi’s midrashic interpretation, willing to use the Divine promise as a viable option. Both the Land and its owners have therefore two statuses at the same time – Abraham can be a stranger and a Divinely ordained owner, just as the land can be Hittite and must therefore be bought, or it can be already inherently Jewish and may thus be taken by legal right. The latter is, as we know, the sole interest of those who read this portion with a political set of priorities. It is my belief that Abraham’s openness to an acquisition of the land from the Hittites points to his intention to bring together two statuses – that of an alien and that of an owner, and thus to redefine entirely the concept of “grasping onto the land.”

In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch interprets this passage focusing a lexical nuances which have, as I will show, important consequence for the subject discussed in this article:

“burial site” – whoever interprets the Hebrew word “ahuzah” as pointing to a process of acquisition, in the sense of an object bought and held in the hands of its owner, makes a grave mistake. The word “ahuzah” points to a site, a piece of land which, as such, cannot be owned or held in the hands of any one person – “ahuzah” never means in the Torah “an object which can be carried or passed on from one person to another. Furthermore, the verb “to grasp” is always used in the Torah in its passive form… pointing to the fact that it is not the object that is owned and held by the individual, but rather that the opposite is true – the owner is owned by the land.

Abraham, to use Rav Hirsch’s words and carrying them a step further, is not approaching the Hittites in order to buy a piece of land and thus to acquire eternal legal rights (which he already has by virtue of God’s promise) to the Land of Israel – what he is doing is looking for a place to bury his dead wife, a process in which the etymology indicated by Hirsch applies perfectly. Upon being buried, the individual does not own the land, but rather is owned by it. Rav Hirsch then continues his reasoning with the following words:

The land takes in its owner, and the latter is held in by it. For this reason… one cannot swear upon one’s land, for upon swearing one binds one’s possessions and all that is transient in his life, to the oath taken – and if that which is uttered turns out to be false, all those possessions are taken from him. “Ahuzah” in this context must mean, therefore, the beginning of a settlement, an operation through which the individual grasps onto a piece of land. There is a connection between Abraham’s need to bury his dead wife and his need to buy a piece of land – he lived for years on Hittite land with all his possessions and his people, and never requested to buy a spot – for up until Sarah’s death, Abraham’s identity was that of a wanderer. His need to bury his wife forced him to acquire a piece of land for the first time. A burial was therefore his first connection to the land, the first binding to a soil which limits him and ties him to itself – “ahuzah.”

Hirsch makes a very interesting point – the individual cannot, in his etymological analysis of this passage, own the land, nor can he make an oath upon it. From this perspective, a human being is the transient entity, while the land is the fixed point – Abraham is a wanderer who has no interest in acquiring a fixed point of connection with the Land he has been promised. Abraham is the one who will multiply into a multitude of peoples, who contemplates an infinity of stars and who will keep wandering – yet from this moment on, he is bound to this piece of land in particular, not because of his need to settle it or build a site where his new culture will thrive, but because of a grave. This act of grasping onto the land is founded, so to speak, on a void of presence.

So what is the Divine promise saying to Abraham and how are we to understand this weekly portion, if not in a politically oriented interpretational key? The Midrash Rabbah may point us in an alternative direction, one in which there is a fragile, as opposed to eternal and legal, connection between the Land of Israel and the People of Israel – the Midrash, in fact, presents this everlasting holding onto the Promised Land as nothing less than a conditional bond which God defines as depending on the Israelites’ behavior:

Gen. 17:8 reads – “I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.” Rabbi Yudan said: [God thus said to Abraham:] If your sons accept my Divine authority over themselves, I will be their God and patron – if they won’t, then I won’t be their God and patron. If your sons will enter the Land, they will accept my Divine authority – if they will not enter it, they will not accept my Divinity. If they will circumcise their male children, they will enter the Land, and if they won’t circumcise them, they won’t enter the Land. If your sons will accept to keep the Sabbath, they will receive the Land – if not, they will not receive it.

In this sense, the same person, the same Abraham, can be both a stranger and a land-owner, both a wanderer and one who is bound to a specific place. The same individual, in this way, can both accept Divine authority and live in the Land promised to him, or, on the other hand, he can refuse that authority and return to a rootless state of wandering. In any one of these cases, human beings are the ones grasped by the land, and not the other way around – the land is said to devour its inhabitants, and the land is the fixed point around which the senseless transient nature of men rotates chaotically. And the land, the land promised by God, is a land which cannot, will not comply with the crass and aggressive urge for control of some human beings.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.