11/09/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Project Hayei Sarah: When Torah Meets Territory

This dvar Torah was delivered at Yeshivat Hadar as part of Project Hayei Sarah.

When looking in Sefer Bereishit (the Book of Genesis) at the narrative progression of Gd promising Avraham the land of Eretz Yisrael, there is a glaring practical difficulty that arises for Avraham. Gd clearly sets forth the end result of Avraham becoming a great and prosperous nation in the land, but doesn't dictate the means of how Avraham is supposed to acquire this land that is already diversly inhabited. Without a clear action plan, Avraham must rely on his ethical instincts and faith in Gd's word.

There is a great example of how Avraham's interpretive choices ,in the silence after Gd's promise, play out in a discussion of the quarreling between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot in Parshat Lech Lecha. Rashi brings a Midrash from Bereishit Rabah that teaches that the shepherds were quarreling because Lot's shepherds were wicked and were intentionally grazing their cattle in the fields of others. Avrahams' shepherds, noticing this theft, rebuked them, provoking the quarrel. To justify their actions, Lot's shepherds said, "the land has been given to Avraham, and he has no heir, so Lot [his brother's son] will inherit the land, and therefore, this is not theft."

This is the orientation of Lot: What has been promised to us is for our taking. The property rights of the lands' current inhabitants do not have to be considered in taking what one has been promised by Gd.

Why then did the Shephards of Avraham consider this to be theft? The Midrash continues and says that the next line in the Torah -- Vehakna'a'ni vehaprizi az yoshev ba'aretz, "And the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the land" -- comes to refute Lot's argument. This teaches us that as there were already other people using the land, it would be stealing to take the land in such a aggressive manner without aquiring the land legally (Bereshit Rabbah 41:5).

These conflicting postures toward the people of the land follow Lot and Avraham later on as they negotiate with the residents of Sodom and Hebron respectively. Just as Lot's shepherds felt they were entitled to take from the Cannanite and Perizzite fields, when the Malachim (angels) come to visit Lot, the people of Sodom feel entitled to take Lot's guests from his home without his consent. The Torah seems to be subtly telling us that it is not suprising that someone so inclined to taking property by force would find himself surrounded by a people threatening violence.

In contrast, at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Hayei Sarah, Avraham comes to be in the city of Hebron, seeking to purchase a specific cave, Maarat Hamachpelah, from B'nai Het, the people of the land, for the burial of his beloved wife, Sarah. In a scene whose text has many structural parallels to Lot and the angels in Sodom, Avraham displays his righteous character, in a deeply respectful and legally contractual choreography of the purchase of the Maarat Hamachpelah from Ephron the Hittite. Gd being noticeably absent from the entire exchange, Avraham must rely on his ethical instincts of warmth, fairness, integrity and playing by the laws of the land. In this way, he is fulfilling Gds' promise to him in a way that is agreeable to B'nai Het.

The first words Avraham says to B'nai Het is to identify himself as a Ger-Toshav, a resident and alien, which voluntarily takes on a legal position without rights or entitlements. Even though B'nai Het recognizes Avraham as the elect among them, addressing him as Adon, Lord, an acknowledgement of his power and influence, Avraham does not treat them as their superior. Rather, Avraham twice bows low before Am Haaretz, the people of the land, a rather low position in the hierarchy of the Torah. When Ephron finally offers Avraham a price of 400 sheckels for the Maarat Hamachpelah, an exorbitant amount of money according to the tradition, Avraham accepts without hesitation, to make clear that the deal is fair and not contestable.

Finally, Avraham conducts this entire transaction at the city gates, in the hearing range of "all who enter the gate of the city" (Bereishit 23:10). There is another Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah that asks what all the inhabitants of the city were doing there. Rebbi Pinchas teaches that B'nai Het heard of the righteousness of Avraham, so they all locked their doors to their homes and businesses and went to bestow kindness upon him. Rashi interpets this Midrash even further to mean that they came to attend the funeral of Sarah. Even if the people were just there to serve as witnesses to the land purchase, the contrast to the people of Sodom in their interactions with Lot could not be clearer.

The relationship between Gd and Avraham rests on two pillars: the promise of the Land and Gds' trust in Avraham as a righteous person. The only hint the Torah gives us for why Avraham is chosen to receive the land is found in Parshat Vayeira, when Gd prepares to inform Avraham of the impending destruction of Sodom and Amorah, saying that "Avraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him, For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Hashem by doing what is just and right" -- laasot tzedakah umishpat.

In looking at paths that come from Lot and Avraham, the Torah seems to be teaching that Avraham's choice to act with tzedek and mishpat in his interactions with B'nai Het and other peoples of the land are exactly the traits that make him trustworthy to settle the land. In contrast to Lot, who represents the promise of the settlement of the land without the moral fiber of righteousness and justice.

These same choices echo in our world today, which is still trying to find the best path to walk without direct guidance from Gd. In the debate over contemporary settlements in Israel and the Palestinian territories, so many have resigned themselves to the path of Lot, thereby treating all of of our holy cities as if they were Sodom. Lot's orientation has become the norm for both the radical left and radical right, asserting that the Jewish people must make a choice; to have only the Land or only their ethical standards.

It is easy to write off the one-sided voices within our midst, but the Sages take the temptation of following the example of B'nai Lot seriously: It is actually not so crazy to want to have a black and white interpretation of ownership of land or ethical standards. But the Sages come down on the side of Avraham, pointing us to an ideal that neither the radical left or right seem to think is possible.

Hebron is the city where Avraham chooses to display his highest standards of tzedek and mishpat in purchasing the land that his descedents will receive. Even today, many journey to Hebron to remember and honor Avraham's legacy.

But sadly, Hebron has become a city of conflict and violence; a paradigm of owernship that seems closer Lot and not Avraham. As we have learned, the truest interpretation of Gds blessing of settlement in the land of Israel is not always the most obvious one. I invite us to challenge ourselves to strive to be worthy of this land and this holy city by not compromising on tzedek and mishpat. This is what the biological and spiritual descendency of Avraham is all about.

Micah Weiss is the co-director of Project Hayei Sarah. In its fourth year, Project Hayei Sarah is a group of rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators and lay-leaders who have spent time in Hebron and are grappling with the difficult realities they encountered there by inviting their communities into a conversation about what they have seen there during the week of Hayei Sarah. You can watch a collection of video D'vrei Torah from different members and learn more on their website,