Avraham Makes His Mark

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Chaye Sarah

Naming for Importance

The Torah adds bishmotam le-toldotam, by their names, in the order of their birth, to its list of Yishmael’s sons, 25;13. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah explains the need for the aside with a note from a reality no longer true: in his time (and, he assumed, the Torah’s), when a man married a woman from a higher class, he would take her more honored family name, would similarly change his name if he bought or inherited a famous piece of land.

(Random guy who married into the royal family might change his family name to “le-beit David,” for example, or if he bought Graceland, change it to that. R. Mecklenburg seems to have no problem with it.)

Avraham’s Family Name and Landholdings Were Enough

Bishmotam le-toledotam tells us Yishmael’s sons and descendants never had to do that, because they were of Avraham’s line, famous in his nobility, an honor and glory for them. Ditto with their land, inherited by virtue of their connection to Avraham.

R. Mecklenburg applies the idea to 25;18, Yishmael’s descendants dweltal penei kol echav, usually taken to mean alongside or in the presence of all his kin. He dislikes that translation, because previous verses told us where they camped, making this superfluous.

Instead, he reads penei to mean important or praised, an idea he adapts from Rashbam’s interpretation of the lechem ha-panim, the bread put on the Table in the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash. Rather than showbread, the common way to read the phrase, Rashbam said it indicated the bread’s importance. Or, for another example HaKetav VeHaKabbalah cites, Sotah 49b calls the leaders of the generation penei ha-dor, the important ones of the generation, because everyone turns to them.

Israel is the land, a land everyone wanted to control, for its bounty and beauty. [He says “we know” the Ishmaelites conquered it in 614 CE (in his words, 374 to the fifth millennium). I’m not sure what he means; Sasanians conquered Jerusalem in 614, but they were Persians, not a group I’ve heard identified with Yishma’el. Moslems conquered Jerusalem in 638.]

Details aside, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah thinks Avraham’s family and the Land of Israel spared Yishma’el’s offspring ever having to adjust their names, their familial and landed importance always surpassed their spouses’.

Avraham’s Maturity

Avraham sends Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak at a time the verse, 24;1, describes him as zaken, ba ba-yamim, old, advanced of days. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch repeats (he says, I don’t know his commentary well enough to have known this on my own) his view zaken in the Torah indicates a person who has learned, whose life experience has taught him the right values and goals. The zaken has matured. It is why Chazal, Kiddushin 32b, thought the word meant “zeh she-kanah chochmah, one who had acquired wisdom.”

As opposed to a na’ar, someone who is mena’er, wipes away any messages, refuses to accept what life demands, still intends to bend the world to his will.

[Last week, we saw R. Hirsch speak about the mockery Avraham and Sarah bore because of their pipe dream to shift the world to monotheism. Here, he has Avraham having learned lessons. Perhaps he means Avraham became more focused, no longer thought to impose his ideas on the whole world.]

Wisdom Is Aware of Two Worlds

Yashen is the world for old in the sense of used up, in R. Hirsch’s reading. The wise zaken focuses on the next world as well as this. In line with Avot 4;22, where we are told any time of full repentance and good deeds in this world outvalues all the next, but any time in the next outvalues all our lives in this, the zaken uses his/her time here to achieve more for his/her time there.

S/he does so, Yalkut Shimoni says, by bringing God into the world. Spending life here on efforts to make this world a more Godly place earns the title of ba ba-yamim, days in the plural because it is two kinds, as Bereshit Rabbah says, the righteous person lives in in both the physical and spiritual, so his/her life is a pathway through this world to the next.

R. Hirsch seems to think the Torah was commenting on Avraham’s life status rather than his age. When he sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak, he had rolled with life’s punches to find his way to a fuller understanding of the world and how to bring Hashem into it, used his time well, putting himself into this world and the next.

When There’s Problems with a Sale and a Gift

In the beginning of chapter 23, Avraham tries to secure a burial plot for Sarah. Malbim thinks the Hittites offer to bury her in one of their plots, verse six, because of a local ordinance banning selling such plots to outsiders (there is a long history of resistance to outsiders; nativism isn’t new).

Avraham counters, in verse nine, with an offer to buy Efron’s whole field. Selling him a field, for planting, would not violate the ordinance, the field included the cave, and Avraham would do with his land what he wished.

Efron tries to make it a gift instead, but that won’t work, Malbim argues, because a gift given with an intended purpose—planting—is nullified if the recipient uses it for some other purpose, even if the giver didn’t articulate the purpose, as long as it is clear to all [I think there are many facets to when we consider a gift-giver’s intent clear enough to determine the rights of the recipient, but it’s not really our issue].

With a sale, however, Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 207 and 241 tell us even if we know the seller had one thought in mind, the fact of receiving money for the item means s/he removes any such conditions. Which is how Avraham convinced Efron only a sale would work.

Patient Perseverance

Sarah is the only one of the Matriarchs whose life span the Torah gives, R. David Zvi Hoffman points out, in his view part of the story of Avraham’s search for a burial plot for her. For R. Hoffman, the story appears in such detail to show us how little in Avraham’s life was in line with the promises Hashem had made to him.

He has conquered much of this land, from the four kings, yet when his wife dies, he has to beg Efron and the Hittites to sell him, expensively, a place to put her. It exemplifies what Hashem later said to Moshe, “My Name Hashem I did not reveal to them.” They had to believe in promises they never saw come to fruition.

Yet, immediately after, when Avraham sends Eliezer to Charan, he hopes and expects God will send His angel with Eliezer, to make his trip successful.

Encouraging the Conquest

R. Hoffman adds the idea the Torah included this story because it was given to the Jews of the desert, who had absorbed Egyptian values. They preferred good food to war, would have accepted repatriation to Egypt instead of a fight for Israel. Knowing their ancestors were buried there—for R. Hoffman a reason some or all of the spies go to Chevron—would motivate them.

For our four commentators, Avraham has to buy land God promised him, a demonstration of his faith despite a dearth of demonstrated manifestations of God’s guarantees. He buys the land to circumvent a local ordinance against selling burial plots and for fear a gift would be nullified by his misusing the land in the gift, but his accumulated wisdom and focus qualify him as zaken when he sends Eliezer to find Yitzchak a wife, a wisdom and life that proved a lasting legacy to his Yishma’el descendants, let alone the Jewish people.

About Gidon Rothstein

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