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Negotiating the Future

Torah Talk on Chayei Sarah 5780

Negotiation gets a bad rap these days. Many people see the give-and-take necessary to reach consensus as a kind of moral compromise, a sacrifice of ideals on the false-idol-altar of base pragmatism. Compromise? Consensus? Agreement? Not words we hear much in politics these days…

But real progress in this world is usually the result of masah-umatan, the “horse-trading” and “logrolling” that allow society to solve its problems and attain new and important accomplishments. Where difference of opinion exists, and it always does, reasonable negotiation eventually leads to productive resolution. The Torah teaches that lesson in this week’s portion of Chayei Sarah.

Chayei Sarah marks a transition in the Genesis narrative from the tales of Abraham and Sarah, our first Jewish father and mother, towards the next generation, which will feature Isaac and Rebecca. But first we begin with an ending.

At the start of the portion we are told of the length of Sarah’s life, and almost by accident we learn of Sarah’s death. “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” the sedrah begins, and the famous Midrash on it tells us that Sarah was just as beautiful at age 100 as she was at 20, and just as free of sin at 20 as she had been at 7. It is a fine encomium for a significant figure who now passes permanently from the scene.

Next come the negotiations, which have great influence on the future of the fledgling religion some day to be known as Judaism. An extended section dedicated to arranging for Sarah’s funeral, as Abraham arranges the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the first piece of real estate owned by our people in what will be known as the land of Israel. That cave becomes the burial place not only for Sarah but for most of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah eventually all find their final resting place in Hebron.

In Chayei Sarah the purchase of this plot involves an elaborate bargaining session with the Hittite who owns it, and the payment of a huge sum for the first permanently Jewish land in the world, establishing Jewish legitimacy in the Middle East at a very early point in history. I first visited Machpelah many years ago, when it was safer to travel to Hebron. It was an interesting shrine, at that time filled with candles and smoke, ancient, a bit spooky. When I went back in 2015 I was only able to access the second floor, the “Jewish section”, as the caves below are now reserved for Muslim prayer and the Israeli army enforces this rule. A very tense place and often the locus of Palestinian Arab violence, it is rarely worth the danger to make the trip to Palestinian Hebron.

After the Cave of Machpelah negotiations, Chayei Sarah includes one last detailed episode of Abraham’s life. Abraham is old, sees that his son Isaac has not married and seems unlikely to do so without parental intervention. Abraham charges his trusted servant to go back to the Old Country of Sumeria—Harran, today in eastern Turkey—and bring back a suitable girl for Isaac to marry and carry on the line of believers in the one true God.

The servant goes on the great journey from Canaan. When he arrives, he offers the first extended prayer in the Torah, asking the God of Abraham for success on his delicate mission. Immediately, Rebecca appears to draw water from the city well in Harran. The servant knows she is the one for Isaac because she shows instinctive generosity and obvious intelligence. The servant, too, bargains, in this case with Rebecca’s duplicitous brother and father. Eventually they all arrange for her to become Isaac’s wife. But at the crucial moment of the narrative Rebecca’s family puts the question directly to her: “Will you go with this man?” That is, will she leave all she has known and journey to an unknown land and future husband?

The final negotiation of Chayei Sarah is brief. Rebecca agrees quickly to go. Yes, she will leave the homeland, and her father’s house and go to the land that will be shown to her. And so she goes, and meets Isaac, and the future of the people, and of monotheism, is assured.

These three negotiations revolve around crucial elements in our people’s history: land, descendants, and destiny. Without title to the land of Israel we would have remained homeless wanderers. Without descendants we would have simply ceased to be. And without the courageous choice of women and men—like Rebecca, and Abraham before her—our destiny would have been disappearance.

As Jews, these remain our principal goals today, and often they still require negotiation to achieve: a secure land of Israel, our children and grandchildren’s commitment to Judaism, and the destiny of our people as a moral light to the nations.

Aren’t those causes worth negotiating for?

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