Whose 'ancestral homeland'?

Abraham’s tests are our reassurance and proofs. Erekat's claims of an 'ancestral homeland' are as false as those Abraham faced.

Daniel Pinner ,

Cave of the Patriarchs
Cave of the Patriarchs
Flash 90

Earlier this week, we were privileged to celebrate the death of a particularly famous and successful Jew-hater and terrorist, Saeb Erekat y”sh, who died in Jerusalem at the age of 65.

Like the Canaanites, the Perizzites, and the Hittites before him, Erekat represented an identity newly-arrived in Israel: he was one of the leaders of the “Palestinians”, a nation which no one had heard of, and which was unaware of its own existence, until 1964.

Erekat himself was born in Abu Dis in 1955, when it was part of the Kingdom of Jordan (also an illegal and fictitious construct). That is to say, even though Erekat presented himself as “Palestinian”, he was actually born a Jordanian citizen

When his country, Jordan, joined the pan-Arab military coalition in 1967 and launched a war of aggression and attempted genocide against Israel, an escapade which came to be known as the Six Day War, they lost the war, and in doing so lost territory to Israel.

That’s how Erekat came to live under Israeli rule when he was 12.

But actually, his family wasn’t even indigenous to the region: the Erekat family are part of the al-Huweitat hamullah (hamullah being approximately a clan, or federation of related clans).

The al-Huweitat hamullah traces its common ancestry to Huwayt, an Egyptian nomad who presumably centred his life around a somewhat obscure desert oasis called Jabal Umm-al-Huweitat, the site of a beautiful lagoon nestling among the mountains of southern Egypt, about 60 km (36 miles) inland from the Red Sea.

Nevertheless, Erekat claimed this country as his “ancestral homeland”.

As the aphorism has it, מַעֲשֵׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים, the deeds of the Forefathers are a portent for the sons [1].

Just as when Abraham entered the Land of Israel, which G-d had promised to him, every nation which occupied the Land, regardless of how recently they may have conquered it, claimed that the Land belonged to them, so too in our generations, as we, Abraham’s descendants return to our ancestral homeland.

Nevertheless, Abraham stood firm and passed all the tests to which G-d subjected him.

Now it is undeniably true that we cannot reach Abraham our father’s level of faith. After all, that was made Abraham Abraham: that was what made him unique.

However, we do have one insuperable advantage which our father Abraham did not have: we have our father Abraham to show us the way and to inspire us. Abraham had no Abraham to inspire him: he had to find his own way with no one to lead.

When he first entered Canaan, the only other nation he encountered was the Canaanites, who themselves were new in the country. It was obvious that they had no historical claim to the Land.

But by the time G-d forged the בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, the Covenant between the Parts, with Abraham, He had to promise him that He would bequeath him the Land of “the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Repha’im, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21) – fully ten nations!

And Abraham was tested (at least according to Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona) by having to buy the Machpelah Cave from one of these ten nations, the Hittites.

And yes, Abraham our father stood firm in the Land which G-d had decreed would be his future.

There is no reason for us, his children, to despair or even doubt the righteousness of our absolute claim just because other vagrants enter our Land, usurp it, and claim to be its indigenous inhabitants.

To the contrary: the fact that our father Abraham stood firm and passed all the tests that G-d threw before him reassures us that we, too, can follow our father Abraham to ultimate success.

Let us look back in more detail:

Last week, Parashat Vaera concluded with the Akeidah, Abraham’s willingness to follow G-d’s command even to sacrifice his own son Isaac.

Before Isaac yet knew what awaited him, “they went, both of them together” (22:6); and even after Isaac understood what awaited him “they went, both of them together” (v.8), “the one to bind and the other to be bound, the one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4), and nonetheless “with equal heart” (Rashi, Genesis 22:8), meaning with the same level of dedication

And when this heart-rending test was over and the father and son rejoiced at the infinite and eternal merit and blessing that G-d had bestowed upon them, “they went together to Beer Sheva” (22:19), still as together and as united in their common purpose as before.

And now, Parashat Chayyei Sarah relates the tragic continuation. Abraham came back home to find his beloved wife Sarah dead:

“The life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years – the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba – which is Hebron – in the land of Canaan. Abraham came to eulogise Sarah and to mourn her; and Abraham arose from before his dead one, and spoke to the children of Heth saying: I am an outsider and a resident with you; give me a burial-site with you, and I will bury my dead one before me” (Genesis 23:1-4).

The blow to Abraham must have been devastating: he had been reconciled to sacrificing his son, was overjoyed at the reprieve – and came home to find that his beloved wife was dead.

And it compounded his grief that he did not even have a grave in which to bury his wife: in the midst of his mourning, he had to negotiate with the Hittites, with Ephron their devious leader, even bow to the landed gentry of the Hittites, in order to purchase the Machpela Cave to bury Sarah.

Decades earlier, God had promised Abra[ha]m that he would inherit the Land of Israel for himself and his descendants for eternity:

“To you seed will I give this Land” (Genesis 12:7); “Raise up your eyes now and see – from the place where you are – northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; because all the land that you see – to you will I give it and to your seed forever” (13:14-15); “I am Hashem, Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this Land, to inherit it” (15:7).

And now, half a lifetime on, the Land was not yet his, he was still an outsider who had to request permission to buy a plot of earth.

Even more galling was that he to buy this plot from the Hittites. When Abram had first entered Canaan, “the Canaanite was then in the Land” (12:6), meaning that the Canaanites, descended from Ham (10:6) had only recently arrived in the Land, conquering it from the Semitic tribes who had inhabited it earlier (Rashi, Radak, Malbim, and Ibn Ezra ad loc.).

Not long afterwards, upon returning to Canaan after his brief sojourn in Egypt during the famine, suddenly “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the Land” (13:7). If previously Abraham had to contend with one recently-arrived nation claiming the Land as their own, now he had to contend with two.

And now, all these decades later, the Hittites – the descendants of Heth – were controlling Hebron and its environs.

At every stage in Abraham’s life a new nation popped up in the Land, each one claiming to be the indigenous inhabitants. Clearly, Abraham had been in Hebron long before the Hittites (13:18) – but nonetheless, he had to submit to their authority.

The Mishnah states that “God tested Abraham with ten tests” (Pirkei Avot 5:3), and according to Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1180-1263), the tenth test was his having to buy the Machpela Cave. (All the other commentators see the Akeidah as the final test.)

Each of these ten trials threatened the abortion of the as-yet-unborn Jewish nation and its task in history: in each of them, Abraham was presented with a situation that, had he taken the wrong decision, the nation could never have sprung from his loins.

Being forced to buy the Machpela Cave from the Hittites, who had only recently invaded the Land, could have been terribly demoralizing for Abraham. Just as the command to sacrifice Isaac cast a doubt over the very future existence of his offspring, so too being forced to buy his own land from a foreign invader cast a doubt over G-d’s fundamental promise that this Land was his.

Nevertheless Abraham “stood firm in all [the tests]” (Pirkei Avot ibid.).


[1] Contrary to popular perception, the phrase מַעֲשֵׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים occurs nowhere in our literature; the earliest use of this phrase would appear to be the Maharsh”a (1555-1631), in his commentary to Avodah Zarah 8b. However, the idea does occur frequently, though not expressed in these words. For example the Midrash records that G-d told Abraham, “You are a portent for your sons” (Bereishit Rabbah 48:7). Another Midrash demonstrates that everything that happened to Abraham portended events that would happen on far greater scale to the Jewish nation as a whole (Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 9), which the Ramban summarises by writing, “Everything that happened to the fathers is a portent for the sons” (commentary to Genesis 12:6).

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.