Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Kalman Packouz
My Grave, My Land, My Love
This week’s Torah portion opens with the passing of Avraham’s wife, Sarah. It describes the back and forth discussion between Avraham and Ephron, the owner of the land Avraham wishes to acquire as a burial plot for his wife. The negotiation does not take place in a quiet room of a funeral parlour but in a very public and open forum witnessed by all the townsfolk. Land deals were done in such a fashion back then and all the moreso when one party was a well-respected leader in the community such as Avraham who is referred to as “a prince of God” during the negotiations. When someone as important as Avraham goes through a major life-changing event as this, it gets lots of coverage.
With the death of his beloved wife, I am sure the last thing Avraham was interested in was a “live breaking news” moment” when securing a plot to bury her. Ephron starts off by offering the land gratis to Avraham but that is soon discovered to be just a ploy to get top dollar. Even though Avraham is in the midst of the pain of his loss, he has to indulge Ephron whose magnanimous gift morphs into a set-up for a price gouge. “What’s 400 silver shekels between friends” Ephron declares with a wink. Avraham “hears him” (as the Torah narrates) loud and clear and forks over the money.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the 400 silver shekels Avraham paid for the land was a ridiculously high price given that much later on in history the prophet, Jeremiah paid only 17 shekels for a similar plot of land. 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 $60,000 and Avraham paid 50 times the average yearly wage at the time, Abraham paid $3 million in today’s dollars for the Machpela Cave. Ouch.
I describe this to serve as a backdrop. One can only wonder what must have been going on in Avraham’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. Despite all the lofty promises by God Himself, the fact of the matter is that had yet to acquire an acre.
And it is significant that the first realization of God’s many promises of homeland to Avraham is a grave. And not just any grave but one for his beloved wife, Sarah. It is symbolic because there are no two greater expressions of intimacy for someone than a spouse… and a grave. Yes, you read that correctly, the greatest expressions of intimacy are with one’s spouse and with one’s 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 between two people than between a couple.
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 in which we are laid to rest. There is a very primal connection between man and earth from the earliest point of creation when death was first introduced once Adam and Eve, the first couple, sinned. Indeed the generic name of Man – Adam – is related to his source and final resting place, Adama which is Hebrew for “earth”.
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 have a true relationship to 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.”
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 prophecy (62:4ff) 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 created between His people and the Land of Israel and sees it 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 very first time that the very first Hebrew, Avraham actually takes possession of a piece of the land of Israel is via the two greatest expressions of intimacy that we humans can experience: marriage and death. Through his wife and through her grave. The two things a man connects with more intimately than anything else – wife and grave.
It is equally fitting that the prophet’s 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. That wedding night that Isaiah envisioned happens thousands of times every day in Israel today.
Thousands of years ago Avraham had his first intimate connection with Eretz Yisrael and it came about only through his beloved Sarah. Today that relationship is being repeated over and over and over again by millions of his children and people of all lands and nations as they walk, touch, smell and taste the self-same soil that Avraham did so lovingly 3,500 years ago.
The tale that 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
I’m the lord of the lake and I don’t want to leave it
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