Purple Sheet 11/25-26
My Grave, My Land, My Love
This week’s Torah portion opens with the passing of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. It describes the back and forth between Abraham and Ephron to acquire a burial plot for her. It is far from a quiet deal and in fact becomes a very public and open spectacle witnessed by all the townsfolk. And for good reason, after all, Abraham is a well-respected leader in the community, being referred to as “a prince of God” during the negotiations. When someone as important as Abraham goes through a major life-changing event like this, it gets lots of coverage.
With the death of his beloved wife, Sarah, I am sure the last thing Abraham was interested in was a “live on CNN” moment” when securing a plot to bury her. To add insult to injury, the seemingly magnanimous offer of a gift to Abraham morphs into and evidently was merely a set-up for a price gouge by Ephron. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the 400 silver shekels Abraham pays for the land was a ridiculously high price given that Jeremiah paid only 17 shekels for a similar plot of land, and according to the Hammurabi Code of that time, a whole year’s wage for a working man was between six and eight shekels. To put it in today’s terms, given that the average wage in the USA (according to the US Census Bureau) is about $50,000 and Abraham paid 50 times the average yearly wage at the time, Abraham paid $2.5 million in today’s dollars for the Machpela Cave. Ouch.
One can only wonder what must have been going on in Abraham’s mind in light of the fact that for the 62 years leading up to Sarah’s death, God had been repeatedly promising to give him the land of Canaan, and yet during all that time, he still did not own a sliver of it.
It is significant that the first realization of God’s promise to him is a grave – and not just that but a grave for his wife – because there are no two greater expressions of intimacy than a spouse and a grave. (I will give you a moment for the jokes, ok…) Judaism always recognizes that from all the relationships we have, the one of husband and wife is the closest. Adam and Eve are referred to as בשר אחד “one flesh” or one being. The Talmud says that “a wife only dies to her husband and a husband only dies to his wife” meaning that nobody else feels the pain of a lost loved one like a spouse feels when they lose their beloved. Intimacy in its closest form happens between a husband and wife and there is no greater bond than it.
While we generally try not to think too much about it, one also has a very intimate relationship to the grave. We literally become subsumed in our final resting place as our body decomposes into the earth that we lay. There is a very primal connection between man and earth from the earliest point of creation when death was introduced into existence once Adam and Eve, the first couple, sinned.
For most of us who grew up in cities, we give very little thought to the power and attraction of the earth. But farmers, wine-makers and those who work the soil and love the land they live upon have a much greater appreciation of this notion. Wine lovers will use the term terroir which “is a loosely translated French term meaning ‘sense of place’ and the effect it has on wine. The soil, atmosphere, environment, sunlight and rain patterns, etc. all affect the way a wine will taste.”
I personally got a glimpse of this as a child when I used to accompany my grandfather to his scrap-metal business out in the country during the summers. I would be covered in dirt and dust from head to toe from the moment I entered his grimy pick-up truck, travelled the graveled roads of Keswick, Ontario and worked outside in the fields there. Even his “office” in the on-site building had a dirt floor. He made me clean myself up in the outdoor shower before we left back to the cottage so my mother would not be shocked at my filthy appearance.
This intimate, and dare I suggest, even sexual connection to the land is expressed by the prophets who foresaw the return of the Jewish people back to its ancestral homeland after 2000 years of exile. In Isaiah’s (62:4ff) prophecy and future vision of the Land of Israel, he refers to her as a be’ula. There is no proper English translation to this word and it is the opposite of betulah which means Virgin. If you search for an antonym of “virgin” you will come up with various negative words such as sullied, disgraced, dishonoured, lewd etc. In English, you’d have to use vulgar words to attempt to translate be’ula but in truth it refers to the intimate, total connection and union that happens when a man and his wife are engaged sexually. Isaiah gets quite explicit when he describes the connection that God has to the Land of Israel as akin to the excitement, anticipation and sexual energy that a young man has in anticipation of his wedding night with his virgin bride.
And so it is quite appropriate that the first time the first Jew, Abraham actually takes possession of the holy land of Israel, it is via the two greatest expressions of intimacy that we humans can experience: marriage and death. And it is equally fitting that the prophets vision of the return to Israel is expressed with the same excitement associated with lust and love that a young man and woman have on their wedding night. We see that energy every day in today’s Israel whenever a Jew from the Diaspora visits for the first time and the tears of joy, love, happiness and connection flow when they first set their feet onto the soil of Israel, kiss her earth or go to touch the stones of the Kotel with trepidation and excitement much the way a man and woman touch each other for the first time.
Thousands of years ago Abraham has his first intimate connection with the Land of Israel that came about through his beloved Sarah, and today it is being repeated thousands of times a day by his children.
‘Til it began on the night of my birth
Will be done in a turn of the earth…
Die if I must let my bones turn to dust…
Lie where I land, let my bones turn to sand
I’m the lord of the lake and I don’t want to leave it