by R. Gidon Rothstein
Meshech Hochmah: Halachic Elements of Buying Me’arat Ha-Machpelah and Betrothing Rivkah to Yitzhak
The opening vignette of the parsha has Avraham seek a burial plot for Sarah. Fruitful negotiations have him purchase Me’arat Ha-Machpelah from Efron, an idea the Torah repeats. Verse 23;17 says the field of Efron was established as Avraham’s property, then verse 20 says the field and cave were fixed as his property.
Meshech Hochmah builds his explanation on the events of the intervening verses. In verse eighteen, the Benei Het (Efron’s countrymen) witness the purchase, and then in verse nineteen, Avraham buries Sarah there. To R. Meir Simhah, each verse describes a stage of acquisition. To explain why and how, we need two pieces of background.
The first revolves around the difference between how Jews and non-Jews acquire property in halachah, an idea I remember seeing in action when I used to work as an Associate Rabbi and was sent to watch R. Willig lead the sale of hametz before Pesah. R. Willig would have the non-Jew perform all sorts of acquisitions– with money, a deed of sale, a handshake, and more– because how non-Jews effectively buy and sell from Jews is unclear. Meshech Hochmah doesn’t get that complicated, but he does note the Vilna Gaon to Hoshen Mishpat 194 records the view of R. Hai Gaon, it takes a deed.
For the issue to bother us in reading this section of the Torah, we need to remember a second assumption of Meshech Hochmah’s, based on Kiddushin 82a and expansions thereof. The Mishnah says Avraham observed the entire Torah (Midrashim assume even rabbinic rules meant to protect the Torah), which later commentators took to mean Avraham was already halachically a Jew rather than a non-Jew, for all purposes. [I remember my teacher R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik introducing me to Parshat Derachim, a remarkable sefer by the author of the Mishneh le-Melech, whose first excursus seeks to prove the Patriarchs were no longer non-Jews, for all halachic purposes. Meshech Hochmah adopts that view here.]
If so, the money Avraham gave Efron worked from Efron’s perspective, such that he was ready to transfer ownership to Avraham, yet Avraham needed an act of acquisition, such as hazakah, an act that demonstrates his ownership. The money had Efron surrender his ownership of it, made the field hefker, then Avraham took it by burying Sarah. To make clear another step had been concluded, the verse repeats the idea the field was now his.
The comment caught my eye for three reasons: 1) I like how carefully he read the Torah, to notice the repetition of va-yakom ha-sadeh, the field was fixed (as Avraham’s), 2)the issue of acquisitions, how halachah thinks Jews and non-Jews acquire property with different acts, and 3) the topic of the status of the Patriarchs (and some others pre-Sinai).
Here, it means Avraham needed two steps to become the full owner of the field and cave (not to speak of the many times his descendants have had to seek other ways to get the cave back).
A Match Made More in Heaven Than We Might Have Known
Two comments of Meshech Hochmah’s display an interest in how good a match Rivkah and Yitzhak were. When Eliezer is standing at the well in chapter twenty-four, he prays to Gd to send him the right wife for Yitzhak. In verse fourteen, he sets up a sign by which Gd can let him know who is the right woman for Yitzhak.
Eliezer refers to what Gd will do as a hessed, usually translated as kindness. Meshech Hochmah relates the word to the kabbalistic tradition Yitzhak represented the quality of gevurah, strength or heroism, and when gevurah and hessed are mixed, what comes out is emet, truth. The test Eliezer set up would be to see if Rivkah had such a quality, and then he would know Gd had provided the right wife for Yitzhak, who needed hessed to complement his gevurah so they could produce Ya’akov, the Patriarch associated with emet, truth.
I don’t usually deal with mystical readings (because I’m grossly unqualified), but I remember reading once that every sod (esoteric, mystical) statement has a peshat, a plainsense presentation. Here, the idea gevurah mixes with hessed [Avraham, too, is thought of as embodying hessed, so the Patriarchal path also mixes hessed with gevurah to produce emet) seems to tell us about the nature of emet, of truth.
We might not think of emet as having room for hessed, because the latter by definition gives people better than they deserve, but the tradition around the Avot and Rivkah says otherwise.
The usual way to read the next verse it that Rivkah appeared before he had finished phrasing his request to Gd. For Meshech Hochmah, though, the point of Eliezer’s experience was to have him see not only that Rivkah was right for Yitzhak, but also why she was right, that it was her quality of hessed. To make sure he saw that, Gd put the idea in his mind (and mouth), the reason the verse says hu terem kilah le-daber, he before he finished speaking. His speech had been sent by Gd, to frame Rivkah’s appearance in the proper terms.
I am not interested in the freewill issues, right now, but more about how it recasts the whole interaction. Getting Eliezer to see Rivkah was right for Yitzhak could have happened in multiple ways; Gd wanted to make sure Eliezer also knew why she was right, and therefore made it that Eliezer phrased his request in a way to highlight it.
Not Even a Chosen Marriage
After Eliezer makes his presentation to Rivkah’s family, they are certain the matter had come from Gd and therefore can’t really comment, Rivkah is his for the taking. Meshech Hochmah notices a problem, though, because in halachah [another example of assuming the Avot lived and operated in the world of halachah], a messenger to betroth a woman cannot make another messenger. Yitzhak was an adult, so Avraham could only have found him a wife if Yitzhak made him a messenger. If so, how could Avraham empower Eliezer to do so? [At the technical halachic level, this is a question of effectiveness, not right and wrong; if Yitzhak did not appoint Eliezer, he would not have the ability to effect kiddushin, which Meshech Hochmah is assuming happened in her home of origin.]
Lavan has given the answer, speaking on his family’s behalf. Kiddushin, betrothal, is created by words, and it is that element that prevents a messenger from appointing a replacement. Once they knew this marriage came from Gd, no one really had a choice about it, so it was more similar to divorce, which in theory can be performed against the woman’s will. If so, here, where Rivkah was obligated to bend to the divine will, Eliezer’s role is less significant, and therefore he could function as messenger. The idea also explains their requesting she stay with them for ten months or a year, because that is the usual time (in the Gemara) between a betrothal and completion of the marriage.
The ins and outs of messengers interest me less here than its continuing Meshech Hochmah’s view of the marriage as one that was supposed to happen, arranged by Gd more directly and intrusively than most. As Avraham left the non-Jewish world by his discovery of Gd and choice to follow all the Torah of that Gd, he separated himself from the rest of the world, producing a son who had a particular set of qualities, for which he needed a wife with the complementary ones, as he found in Rivkah.