The question arises, why did Abraham and Sarah choose to leave Beer Sheba after twenty-six years to return to Hebron.
For many years, Abraham and Sarah had longed to be buried in the final resting place of Adam and Eve, but no one knew where it was. Then, on the day when God transmitted to them the news for which they had hoped all their lives, the imminent birth of a son, He allowed them to learn this secret as well. When the angels came to inform Abraham that Sarah would give birth to Isaac, the Patriarch went to his herd to select animals for the feast with which he honored his guests (18:7). One of the calves ran away, and Abraham gave chase. The calf ran into a cave, Abraham followed and as soon as he entered, he found Adam and Eve reclining on their couches, a spiritual light of unparalleled brilliance burning above them, and the entire scene was enveloped in incense-like fragrance. He immediately desired the possession of that cave as his future burial site. The place was the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron, just outside Hebron. Abraham kept the secret, and told no one except his wife of the cave’s significance.
When Sarah was 115 years old, she felt that the end of her life was drawing near. As residents of Beer Sheba, then under Philistine control, she and Abraham could have no legitimate claim to burial in the Hittite city of Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Therefore, they moved back to their original home, there to re-establish residency and eventually to claim the right, as permanent residents, to purchase a burial plot. Accordingly, when Sarah died, it was natural for Abraham to come to the leaders of the city as an ‘alien and resident’ and ask them to intercede with Ephron to negotiate the sale of the plot he had chosen for his wife’s burial.
23:1 “..the years of Sarah’s life.” – Rabbi Akiva was once giving a lecture when he noticed that his students were drowsing. In order to rouse them he asked, “Why was it seen fit that Esther should rule over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces? Because thus said God: ‘Let the daughter of Sarah who lived one hundred and twenty-seven years come and reign over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.’” (Midrash)
HaRim asks: Why would these words alert the drowsing students more than the topic of the day? Rabbi Akiva wanted to impress upon his students the importance of time and the duty to use every second to best advantage. It was because Sarah’s one hundred and twenty-seven years were perfect and completely sin-free that her granddaughter could hold sway over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces. Each second meant a family; each minute, a farm; each day, a village. Had Sarah idled away her time, Esther’s kingdom would have been diminished. Time is too precious to waste. Sarah’s well-spent time was rewarded during Esther’s reign. Each of us, too, is presented with the fleeting gift of time ~ and the mission of utilizing it fully and well. Who can say what the rewards will be for each fully utilized minute; or the penalty for each wasted minute?
This implied admonition brought Rabbi Akiva’s students to attention.
Another explanation has been offered. Rabbi Akiva lived during a period of intense persecution by the Romans. It was forbidden to teach Torah, and Rabbi Akiva was later executed for doing so. During such times, it was inevitable that the morale of Torah scholars would suffer because they would see no benefit in their efforts. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva consoled them by showing that Sarah’s good deeds did not go unrewarded even though many centuries went by before the time of Esther. Nevertheless, when the reward was bestowed, it was enormous.
23:2 “..Sarah died..” – The Torah records the birth of Rebecca (22:23) before mentioning the death of Sarah to draw attention to the tradition that Sarah lived until the birth of Rebecca who was worthy to succeed her, for there is a tradition that a righteous person is not taken until his successor has been born, as the verse implies (Ecclesiastes 1:5): ‘The sun rises and the sun sets.” Thus, Sarah did not die until Abraham was informed of the birth of Rebecca, the next Matriarch. (Sforno)
“..in Kiriath Arba..” – The literal translation is ‘the city of four’. The Midrash notes that the city had four names: Eshkol; Mamre; Kiriath Arba; and Hebron. The Midrash goes on to enumerate several reasons why it was named Kiriah Arba ~ the city of four: 1) Because four righteous men resided and were circumcised there: Abraham, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre; 2) Because the four righteous patriarchs of the world were buried there: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; 3) Because four matriarchs of the world were buried there: Eve, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah; and 4) Because from there Abraham went forth and pursued the four mighty kings.
23:3 The Torah specifies that Abraham rose up, to teach that it is proper to stand while addressing a gathering. Accordingly, when Abraham wished to speak further, he again stood up (verse7).
“..the children of Heth.” – Heth, being the son of Canaan (10:15), the Hittites were the leaders of the region. Abraham gathered them together so that his request could be negotiated and approved by the proper authorities. As a result, the property would legally remain the uncontested possession of his family forever.
23:4 Observe Abraham’s humility! God had promised the entire land to him and his descendants forever, yet now he was landless and had to purchase a burial plot. Nevertheless, he never doubted God’s ways, nor did he express resentment. He furthermore addressed himself to the citizens of the country in terms of utmost humility, describing himself as a foreigner and a resident.
“..give me..” – The term ‘give’ is then to be understood to imply: permit me to acquire.
Wishing to stress the urgency of his request, Abraham emphasized that his dead was still in his presence, since it is known that the sooner the dead are buried, the greater their peace. (Ralbag)
23:6 “Hear us, my lord..” – The Hittites referred to Abraham several times throughout this episode by using the term ‘my lord’ while Abraham, in turn, never once reciprocated by using this term in addressing them. Abraham gave them his money; he even humbled himself to them but the term, my lord, he would not use, for there is no lord for Abraham except the Almighty.
“..in the choicest of our burial places..” – They were under the impression that Abraham was interested only in a single grave, and therefore accorded him the honor of offering him the grave of his choice.
But the fact that none of them would withhold his burial place did not satisfy Abraham’s request. The bereaved Abraham was not satisfied merely to acquire a grave in which to inter his wife on another’s land, a grave next to which strangers could later be buried; he wanted to acquire permanent possession of a family sepulchre for the eventual burial of his entire family. (Radak) Abraham desired specifically the cave of Machpelah, but in order not to prejudice his negotiating position, he did not reveal that this was his desire lest the price become outrageously inflated (which it eventually did in any event).
23:7 Abraham rose wishing to address them further and bowed down in gratitude ~ not servitude.
23:8 Ephron was a rich and distinguished person. Abraham did not approach Ephron directly and offer an inflated price for the field. Instead he asked the people of the city to entreat Ephron on his behalf to magnanimously ‘give’ (allow to acquire) the property to Abraham, though Abraham would be prepared to pay handsomely for it and still consider it a gift. (Ramban)
23:9 Abraham specifically reveals that the cave is the object of his intention. He stressed that the cave was at the extreme edge of Ephron’s field so that separating it would not interfere with his use of the field, nor would it impair his estate.
“..let him give it to me for its full price!” – Abraham implied: Although I stand ready to pay any price Ephron may designate, I will still consider it a generous courtesy that so important a person will agree to cede his ancestral estate to me. Abraham therefore made no mention of the word ‘sale’. (Ramban)
Malbim interprets: Let Ephron make me a gift of the insignificant piece of property on the edge of his field; in that way he will not violate your common law which prohibits only the sale of property to aliens. At the same time I will make him a gift of a substantial amount of money to offset any possible loss he may suffer by this transaction.
23:11 Abraham was interested only in acquiring the cave itself; he was content that the adjacent field remain Ephron’s. Ephron, however, by way of good deed or trickery (possibly hoping for a higher price for a larger transaction) said he would give him the field as well as the cave on it, for it would be unbecoming for one as honorable as Abraham to own a cave as a sepulchre while the ownership of the field belonged to someone else. Abraham rejoiced at Ephron’s offer and he purchased it in its entirety for the full price Ephron suggested.
23:13 Abraham indicated that he was ready to pay the value of the entire field for the cave alone. The money was ready. He no longer considered it his own. Let Ephron pick it up and the deal would be done.
Apparently, Abraham was concerned that if he considered it a gift, Ephron might later retract, and wish to inter Hittite dead alongside the righteous Sarah. Abraham therefore insisted on a formal sale. (Abarbanel)
23:18 “..the children of Heth..” – The Midrash notes that ‘the children of Heth’ is repeated ten times (eight times in this chapter and again in 25:10 and 49:32), corresponding to the number of the Ten Commandments. This teaches that he who is instrumental in executing a purchase by the righteous is considered as though he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments.
23:19 Only after all aspects of the negotiations had been completed did Abraham proceed to bury his wife; before this he did not do so since, as the Talmud notes, it is degrading for the righteous to be buried in alien soil.
Note: The burial of Sarah took place amid great magnificence of the kind usually reserved for royalty. Shem and his great-grandson, Eber, Abimelech king of the Philistines, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre, as well as the great of the land followed her coffin. A seven-day mourning period was observed for her, and all the inhabitants of the land came to comfort the bereaved Abraham and Isaac. It is chronologically noted that Abraham suffered the loss of several of his close relatives during this relatively short period. His father, Terach, had died two years earlier; Lot died two years later at the age of one hundred and forty; and Abraham’s brother, Nahor, died shortly afterward at the age of one hundred and seventy-two.
The word ‘Machpelah’ derives from the root of ‘double’ signifying that the cave bore a special relationship to pairs. The name Hebron has a similar connotation ~ ‘unite’ or ‘attach’. Thus, the first Jewish possession in Eretz Yisrael was a place that stood for the attachment of husband and wife, and the loyalty of succeeding generations to one another in closeness and intimacy. The name Hebron – unite – indicates that it was there that the souls of the interred reunite to their roots beneath the Throne of Glory.
It is there, the place of joining, that heaven meets earth in an ultimate acknowledgement of the single origin of both. The patriarchs and their wives, “those who sleep in Hebron”, in the burial ground of Machpelah, achieved in their lifetimes this perfect dedication of their earthly activities to the will of God; therefore they were buried in Machpelah, at the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Zohar); to signify their achievement in uniting the two worlds.
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