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      Judaism: Rabbi Kook on Chayei Sarah

      Published: Thursday, November 20, 2003 11:51 AM
      The Torah does not tell us much about Sarah. In fact, more attention is given to the purchase of Sarah's burial plot than to her long, productive life of 127 years. What is so significant about this acquisition of land? And why was the city of Hebron chosen for Sarah's burial?


      The Torah does not tell us much about Sarah. In fact, more attention is given to the purchase of Sarah's burial plot than to her long, productive life of 127 years. What is so significant about this acquisition of land? And why was the city of Hebron chosen for Sarah's burial?

      In the end of days, Isaiah prophesied, "Many nations will go and say, 'Let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob'." (Isaiah 2:3) Why will the nations be drawn precisely to the God of Jacob, as opposed to the God of Abraham or the God of Isaac? The Sages gave a peculiar explanation, only adding to our bewilderment: "Not like Abraham, who saw it as a 'mountain', nor like Isaac, for whom it was a 'field'; but like Jacob, who called it a 'house'." (Pesachim 88a)

      What does the Midrash mean by 'mountain', 'field', and 'house'? These are metaphors for different forms of serving God. The worship of Abraham and Isaac was a universalistic service of God, accessible to all. It was like a mountain or an open field; all were welcome to join in. Abraham, the "father of many nations", sought to correct the sin of Adam and help all mankind. His life's goal was to publicize the name of God among all peoples. Isaac similarly sanctified the name of Heaven throughout the entire world.

      Jacob, on the other hand, referred to the holy place he encountered as "Beth El", "the house of God". Jacob limited the holiness of Israel to the framework of his twelve sons. Unlike the children of Abraham and Isaac, all of Jacob's sons remained within the Jewish people. Jacob's service of God was exclusive to Israel, like a covered and enclosed house. The sanctity of Israel is only safely protected when they are separate from the other nations. "Israel shall dwell securely, alone." (Deuteronomy 33:28)

      Why must Israel be distanced from the other nations? This isolation has a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it prepares the Jewish people for their holy mission. Secondly, it allows them to demonstrate the correct path for the nations of the world - "nations will walk by your light." (Isaiah 60:3) When the nations will aspire to connect to holiness, they will recognize that the sanctity of Israel is separate and distinct. "Let us go up to the house of Jacob," they will say. Let us go and connect with the unique holiness of Jacob.

      Like Jacob, Sarah recognized the need for this insulated holiness. She was the one who demanded, "The son of this maid-servant (Ishmael) will not inherit with my son Isaac." (Genesis 21:10) And Sarah began the process of separating and designating the Land of Israel to the Jewish people - through her burial in Hebron.

      With the burial of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Machpela cave, Hebron came to symbolize the initial acquisition of the Land of Israel. Similarly, we find that Hebron was never the permanent capital of Israel; yet the reign of King David - expressing full Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel - started in Hebron. Hebron signifies the future ownership, and potential holiness, of the Land of Israel.

      When Abraham was commanded "Rise, walk the land, through its length and breadth," (Genesis 13:17) where did he go? He immediately settled in Hebron. Hebron, where the potential sanctity of the Land of Israel was concentrated. Hebron is where those living in the future receive their inheritance and realize their destiny, by virtue of those buried in the past.

      The concept of future sanctity also found expression in the unusual method used to divide up the land in the time of Joshua. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Land of Israel was divided up according to the Jews who left Egypt - even though they had died in the desert and never made it to Israel. (Baba Batra 117a) Usually, it is the living who inherit the dead; an inheritance is divided up according to the number of living descendants. Here though, it was the dead who dictated how the land should be inherited.

      So too, the first Jewish burial in the Land of Israel, that of Sarah, determined the future inheritance and sanctity of the Land. Sarah designated this portion for her descendants. She separated Eretz Yisrael from other parts of the world, just as she separated her son from Ishmael. Sarah initiated the distinct heritage of the Land and the people of Israel.

      [Based on Shemuot Ri'iya 9: Chayei Sarah 5690 (1929)]