Former Shaliach in Greater Washington
This Shabbat, we read Parshat Chayei Sarah, which begins with Sarah Imeinu’s death and Avraham’s purchase of Me’arat HaMachpelah. Tens of thousands of people spend this Shabbat in Hevron, where they daven at Me’arat HaMachpelah, in honor of this purchase.
The parshanim wonder why the Torah goes into such great detail about the purchase. We will look at several explanations and also attempt to understand Hevron’s stature and importance.
The Midrash (Breishit Rabah) states:
“R’ Yudan the son of R’ Simon said, ‘There are three places about which the nations of the world cannot taunt Yisrael, saying: “You have stolen them.” And they are Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Beit HaMikdash (Har HaBayit), and Yosef’s Tomb.’”
What is special about these three places? The Tanach teaches us that our forefathers purchased them from non-Jews.
Yet, why did Avraham Avinu wish to purchase Me’arat HaMachpelah specifically? And why did he insist on buying it? After all, he was offered the site as a free gift, but he was adamant about paying for it.
Me’arat HaMachpelah’s name is famously derived from the fact that it is kefulah b’zugot (literally, “doubled with couples”): Adam and Chava; Avraham and Sarah; Yitzchak and Rivka; Yaakov and Leah.
Thus, Avraham wants Me’arat HaMachpelah, because Adam and Chava are buried there. Furthermore, the Midrash teaches us that Me’arat HaMachpelah is the “opening to Gan Eden.”
However, an alternate Midrash states that Hevron is a makom trashim (“rocky ground”). At first glance, this description seems to denigrate Hevron, but the Midrash explains that a site’s shortcomings suggest its strengths. In other words, Hevron is a makom trashim, because its strength is ruchniyut (spirituality). Most places cannot excel in two spheres. (Yerushalayim is the exception; it shines both in terms of ruchniyut and in terms of gashmiyut – worldly considerations.)
We can now understand that Hevron’s uniqueness is the reason that Avraham seeks to bury Sarah there and, eventually, to be buried there as well. Yet, this leads to yet another question. At the end of the previous parsha – after Akeidat Yitzchak – we learn that Avraham goes to Be’er Sheva. Why is Sarah left behind in Hevron? Why are they not together?
The answer is that Avraham is well aware that both he and Sarah are old and are likely to die in the near future. But if either of them would suddenly arrive in Hevron in order to purchase Me’arat HaMachpelah as a burial place for the other, the locals would realize that the property must be very valuable and would refuse to sell it at any price. However, since Sarah lives in Hevron anyway, no one will think twice about Avraham’s desire to purchase a burial plot there.
Hevron also has a unique halachic status. The Rambam cites a machloket whether or not one who sees Hevron in a desolate state must tear kriah (i.e. rending one’s garment in mourning – as is done when one sees Har HaBayit bereft of the Beit HaMikdash). This halachah does not apply to anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael. In any event, to our great joy, this problem no longer exists in Hevron, which has Jewish inhabitants.
Hevron’s uniqueness becomes apparent when writing a get (divorce certificate) as well. When a get is issued in Yerushalayim, the document includes the words, “Yerushalayim, which is located next to the Shilo’ach Spring.” And if a get is written in Hevron, the words, “Hevron, which is located next to Me’arat HaMachpelah,” are included. Hevron and Yerushalayim are the only two places referenced in this manner.
Let us now return to the question of why Avraham insists on paying, b’kesef malei, for Me’arat HaMachpelah – even though Efron offers it to him for free.
This question has several answers. First, on a practical level, paying prevents Efron from later reneging on the bargain. Yet, the Torat Ohr has another explanation. Avraham purchases Me’arat HaMachpelah in order to teach the nations of the world about the soul’s immortality. Avraham’s contemporaries do not believe that the soul lives on after death, and in fact, even today, there are still those who do not believe in this concept.
In his commentary on Midrash Rabah, Rabbenu Yonah notes that purchasing Me’arat HaMachpelah is one of Avraham’s nisyonot (tests or challenges). How is this a nisayon? After Hashem has promised him all of Eretz Yisrael (“To you will I give it”), suddenly Avraham must purchase part of Eretz Yisrael, which belongs to him.
Another intriguing explanation is that according to the law in Avraham’s time, burial serves as an indication that one is connected to the land. One needs a burial plot in order to be considered an ezrach (citizen or resident). In other words, Avraham’s purchase of Me’arat HaMachpelah is the first step in proving his ownership – and, as a result, also ours – of Eretz Yisrael. Not coincidently, David HaMelech – who completes the conquest of the entire Eretz Yisrael – first rules in Hevron for seven years, before moving on to Yerushalayim.
May we be privileged to see all of you next year in Eretz Yisrael, and may we meet on Shabbat Chayei Sarah in Hevron, Ir HaKodesh.