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Parshat Chayei Sara: Ger V’Toshav

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Ger V’Toshav


Parshat Chayei Sara opens with the death of Sara and the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila by Avraham as a burial site.


The Torah dedicates no less than twenty sentences to the negotiations between Avraham and the Hittites concerning the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila as a burial site for the patriarchal family. This is more text than was dedicated to the entire story of Akeidat Yitzchak.

Recognizing that every word of the Torah is significant, why is this incident recorded in such seemingly unnecessary detail?

A variety of approaches are suggested by the classical commentaries. The Talmud, in a passage echoed elsewhere in Midrashic literature, sees the entire story of the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila as a testament to Avraham’s loyalty and fortitude. Even Satan has to admit: “I have traveled across the whole world and have found no one as faithful as your servant [Avraham]. You promised him, ‘Arise, walk across the length and breadth of the land for I will give it to you.’ Yet when the time came to bury Sara and he could not find a spot for her burial, he did not question your ways.”

Some authorities actually suggest that this episode is one of the ten tests administered to Avraham throughout his lifetime (see Vayeira 4, Context).

Other sources see this narrative as one of a number of texts that record for perpetuity the clear claim of the Jewish nation to specific areas in the land of Israel. The details serve to underscore and cement the legal, contractual nature of our ownership.

How ironic that in our time the city of Hevron and the Cave of Machpeila have once again become the flashpoints for violent dispute between Israel and its neighbors. The Torah’s recordation of Avraham’s purchase of this land remains frighteningly prophetic. We are being told that we will need, across the ages, every possible proof that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.

Yet others understand this narrative as underscoring the deep respect that must be shown, according to Jewish law, towards the dead. With meticulous detail, the Torah records Avraham’s extraordinary efforts to ensure a proper burial for Sara.

From that time onward, Avraham’s descendents will continue to care for those who pass from this world with honor and dignity.

The Chatam Sofer goes so far as to learn from this episode the halachic requirement to purchase a burial plot, rather than simply receive it as a gift.

A careful reading of the text, however, reveals another, deeper level to this episode.

Beneath the surface, a defining confrontation actually takes place between Avraham and his neighbors as he negotiates for the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila. This confrontation brings Avraham’s career full circle and may well present him with the greatest challenge of his life.

The key to the episode lies in a strange two-word phrase used by Avraham as he opens the dialogue with the Hittites dwelling in Hevron: Ger v’toshav anochi imachem, “I am a stranger and a citizen together with you.”

The word ger, “stranger,” is derived from the verb lagur, “to dwell,” whereas the term toshav, “citizen,” emerges from the verb lashevet, “to live.”

As we have noted before (see Vayeira 2, Approaches c), these two verbs describe very different relationships with the land: lagur connotes impermanent residence while lashevet speaks of permanent residence.

Avraham’s self-description is, therefore, inherently self-contradictory. Is he a citizen or a stranger? It would seem that he cannot be both.

Rashi immediately notes the problem and offers two possible solutions: On a pashut pshat level, Avraham is saying, “I am a stranger from a different land, who has come to live with you.”

On a Midrashic level, Avraham is saying: “It is up to you. If you treat me well, I will deal with you as if I am but a stranger who has no rights to the land. If not, I will consider myself a citizen, and take this property by law.”

Each of these explanations is predicated on the assumption that the terms ger and toshav are, indeed, mutually exclusive. One simply cannot be a stranger and a citizen at the same time. Any explanation of the phrase containing both words must therefore resolve the internal conflict between the terms.

A totally different approach to the phrase ger v’toshav, however, can be suggested. Perhaps the inherent conflict between ger and toshav is not meant to be resolved at all. We are confronted, instead, with one of those phrases in the Torah which at first appear contradictory but which, when properly understood, reflect a significant philosophic dialectic (see Bereishit 2, Approaches g).

Avraham’s two-word self-description summarizes, in uncanny fashion, not only his own place in society at this critical moment of his life but the place that his children will occupy in the world community across the ages. What better description of the Jew than “a stranger and a citizen”?

Throughout our history, in country after country, the Jew has maintained a delicate balance in order to survive and succeed. Given the opportunity, we have been “citizens” of every country we have lived in. We have participated in all facets of communal life, contributed well beyond our numbers to culture and technology, played a role in governance and risen to the top echelons of societal life. At the same time, however, we have always been “strangers.” By choice, we have turned to an outside society and declared our difference. We have maintained our own laws and rituals, our own belief system and our own cherished traditions. We have been part of and apart from every civilization in which we have lived. Our ability to maintain the balance defined by the phrase ger v’toshav has determined our very survival in every generation, and how each Jewish community defines the balance for itself determines the very nature of that community.

This balance, so crucial to our nation’s existence, is struck at the dawn of our history.

Towards the end of his life, Avraham turns to the society surrounding him and says: Ger v’toshav anochi imachem, “I am a stranger and a citizen together with you.” Through this declaration Avraham announces: This is who I am. I am, at once, a stranger and a citizen with you. I will participate with you, I will contribute to your culture and to your life; but I will always be separate and apart. This is the balance that I must maintain if I and my descendents are to survive and contribute as a people.

How telling is the response of Avraham’s neighbors in the very next sentences! Nesi Elokim ata b’tocheinu, “You are a prince of the Lord among us.” B’mivchar kvareinu kvor et meitecha, “In the choicest of our graves bury your dead.” The message they convey is the following: Avraham, why all the fuss? No need to struggle with the parameters of your identity. No need to remain separate. You are fully accepted among us without reservation or stipulation.

From that moment the battle is joined. A battle that courses silently beneath the surface of Avraham’s negotiations, first with the Hittites in general and then with Ephron (the owner of the field) in specific.

It is noteworthy that even when Avraham negotiates privately with Ephron, the Torah goes out of its way to tell the reader repeatedly that the negotiations take place in full public view and hearing. These are not simply private negotiations over the ownership of a field but a clash of two cultures.

Over and over again, the Hittites attempt to persuade Avraham to lower his guard, to join their community without conditions. Over and over again, Avraham refuses, insisting upon boundaries and separation, insisting that the grave for Sara be fully purchased and not received as a gift. Even after death the Jew must remain distinct, his unique identity fully preserved.

This is one of those quiet moments of history where everything hangs in the balance. If Avraham fails, God forbid, in his attempt to define his identity, Jewish history ends right here. He is assimilated into the Hittite community, the Jewish nation never forms, and all the contributions that the Jewish people are destined to make to the world are never made.

The event at Machpeila also brings Avraham’s career full circle. The patriarch’s mission to the world was launched with God’s commandment: Lech lecha  mei’artzecha…, Leave your land, your birthplace and the home of your father and go “to the land that I will show you.” (see Lech Lecha 1).

The rabbis understand this commandment as creating a twofold obligation. On the one hand, Avraham was instructed to separate himself from his background and from all within the world incompatible with his mission. On the other hand, the rabbis say, God commanded Avraham to journey from place to place, in order to actively spread God’s word to a waiting world. The Midrash, in fact, compares the patriarch at the beginning of his career to a small jar of perfume. Left in one place, the perfume cannot be appreciated. If it is carried throughout the room, however, all can benefit from its aroma. So, too, Avraham was commanded by God to travel from his home so that others could benefit from his efforts.

In short, the rabbis see the first commandment given by God to Avraham as a commandment to be part of the world and apart from the world at the same time. This dialectic is reiterated by Avraham decades later, when he faces Hittite society and proclaims: Ger v’toshav anochi imachem, “I am a stranger and a citizen together with you.”

At the dawn of Avraham’s journey, God openly delineates the balance that will define Jewish identity across the ages. When the patriarch negotiates for the Cave of Machpeila, however, God is silent. Alone and on his own, Avraham must discern the challenge that confronts him and respond appropriately. He looks back upon the lessons he has learned throughout his career and, facing a foreign society, carefully negotiates the equation that will preserve both his involvement in that society and his own individuality. Avraham’s triumph at that lonely moment ensures the survival and success of his people.