Parshat Chayei Sarah: Is Alienation the Unavoidable Price of Revolutionary Thinking?

And Abraham arose from before his dead, and he spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you. Give me burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me.”
(Bereishit 23:3–4)

Abraham the Outsider

When Sarah dies, Abraham wants to buy a burial site from the sons of Heth. The purchase of Me’arat ha-Makhpelah is portrayed as a gloomy affair in which Abraham has to beg in order to bury his dead. Here we can see how much Abraham must have felt an outsider in Canaan. He saw himself as a hired worker and resident, terms reserved for reference to the lowest echelons of society, as is seen in the following pasuk:

And [the produce of] the Shabbat of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you. (Vayikra 25:6)

Later in the parashah, when Abraham makes his servant swear to find Isaac a wife, his words are once more those of an outsider, alienated and alone:

And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Bereishit 24:3–4)

All aloneThese verses contain a painful echo of that first command, Go forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house (Bereishit 12:1). Abraham, who had left his childhood home without hesitation, considers Haran his birthplace.[1] He wants to make contact with his roots and introduce Isaac to a woman from his father’s house.

It seems that Abraham’s life-story is built upon tragic foundations. He spends his years wandering from place to place and fails to strike new and enduring roots in the Promised Land. Abraham carries the monotheistic message with him on an unceasing journey, and everywhere he remains an alienated stranger. In his heart he pines for his original home.

The Sages tell us that “beito”, one’s home, “refers to one’s wife” (Mishnah Yoma 1:1). Abraham remains unfulfilled in regard to this sense of “home” as well. Sarah accompanies him in his wanderings, but she never manages to establish a calm and stable household. In their wanderings, she had to deny the very fact of her being Abraham’s wife when he instructed her to say “He is my brother” every time they arrived at a new place (Bereishit 20:13). Sarah is never granted a place of her own; it is only in her death that she finally gets her own plot of land – a burial plot.

This situation gives rise to a question. Why was the first believer condemned to perpetual wandering, to living his life as an outsider? Is alienation the unavoidable price of revolutionary thinking?

The Feeling of Being at Home

Field with crocusesLet us drift off for a moment to the hills of Gilboa. The crocuses are the first flowers to bloom with the autumn rains. I am moved by the vision of their blossoms, but soon enough I ask myself, what is it about these rather plain flowers that affects me so strongly each year?

I think that it is only for the true children of the Gilboa that the crocuses bear this more than passing significance. Their flowering is a link in the seasonal chain of growth in which each flowering species represents a different stage of the year. Permanent residents of the area can appreciate the full significance of the flowers’ bloom. While the crocuses may be beautiful for visitors, they do not bear the same charge of meaning for outsiders as they do for local folk.

This is an example of the pulse of life, the ever-repeating rhythm that underlies a place of permanence – a home. The pattern returns, and the regular and predictable order lends people a feeling of belonging and comfort. It is this familiar rhythm that makes us “feel at home.” That feeling, founded upon cyclical recurrence, constitutes the basis and staring point of a person’s life. The divine commandment of “Go forth!” robbed Abraham of precisely this feeling.

The feeling of being at home protects people from its terrible alternative – a world of alienation and the life of an outsider – but it may also prevent openness toward others. Someone who is shackled to his home will find it difficult to adjust to new surroundings. This was Abraham’s advantage: he was a dweller of tents. A house is strong and permanent, but its walls are difficult to penetrate. A tent is temporary but also wide open and inviting to passersby.

Abraham lacked a permanent dwelling, but he did not lack an identity. Knowledge of God and awareness of the memory of his homeland were Abraham’s inner compass. He had the memory of the past to hold on to, and a divine purpose to aspire to. The ability to spread God’s message demands inner strength combined with warm openness to those outside. Abraham combined these two qualities, and they allowed him to carry the message of loving-kindness into the world.

[1] Ur Casdim is his actual birthplace; see Bereishit 11:26–32.

This D’var Torah was originally published in Rav Bigman’s The Fire and the Cloud (Gefen Publishing, 2011, www.gefenpublishing.com), and appears here with permission.

Rav David Bigman
Rav David Bigman, a member of Beit Hillel, is Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, having previously served as Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim, and as Rabbi of Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa. He was one of the founders of Midreshet HaBanot b’Ein Hanatz”iv. He is active in issues pertaining to society and halacha, as well as dialogue between secular and religious Israelis.

 

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