By Nick Gendler
What is the significance of this seemingly prosaic transaction between a man and the owner of a small plot of land? Perhaps it was to establish the unbreakable bond between our people and the land of Israel. It is, after all, the first manifestation of God’s promise of the land to Abraham.
But if ownership of the land by Abraham was a matter of divine arrangement, then why was he obliged to go through such a protracted process of negotiation? The scholar Nehama Leibowitz suggests, with the support of midrash Hagadol, that the message of the parashah is to show Abraham’s humility. Abraham has been promised this land as a gift from God, yet he doesn’t mention this when he seeks a place to bury his dead. Instead he humbly insists on paying for it.
Well, it’s only money, and after all, while God promised the land would be the possession of Abraham’s descendants, there was no mention that it would be free of charge. Let’s not forget how much fighting took place before the children finally settled in the promised land – so it’s reasonable that Abraham should pay, whether or not the ownership was divinely ordained.
Whatever the reason, the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah has had a truly profound impact on our tradition – one that has affected every one of us up to the present day.
Have you ever considered why burials are so expensive for Jews, or why our cemeteries are consecrated ground, guaranteed to be left undisturbed in perpetuity? Perhaps we have Abraham Avinu to blame for it? Unlike other traditions, there is no leeway as far as this is concerned; just as it was for Abraham, we too must pay a price for the security of knowing that our dead will rest forever undisturbed.
It is a central tenet of our religion that our bodies are to return to the ground, intact, so that they might decompose naturally and be left until the time of resurrection. Furthermore, a grave may not be reused for another burial, although double-depth burials, where one body is stacked on top of another, are acceptable; in fact the old cemetery in Prague has seven levels.
It’s also important that cemeteries are situated close to our communities, because even in death we remain part of society. There are around 130 Jewish cemeteries in the UK.
In order to make such guarantees, it is imperative that the land be owned. One of the first tasks of a new Jewish community is to secure ownership of its burial site, typically paid for out of community funds.
I remember my father saying to me as a young boy: “Neither a lender nor borrower be”, and while in our modern, interconnected world it’s difficult to live a purely self-sufficient life, the notion set out here that we should resist situations that might allow others to have a later claim upon us is to be avoided.
The parashah is setting out a fundamental principle of honourable behaviour. If you want something, then you must pay for it, and the more important it is to you, then all the more should you ensure that no questions about provenance can be raised at a later date.
Nick Gendler is a member of New North London Synagogue and past Co-chair of Masorti Judaism.