Vicarious anticipation

Chayyei Sarah: the meaning of ownership

Tomorrow morning at shul we'll be reading and discussing Chayyei Sarah -- not the blog, the Torah portion. The title of the portion means "the life of Sarah;" ironically enough, the portion begins with Sarah's death. As one of the texts for our Torah study, I'll be presenting excerpts from an essay  by Rabbi Arthur Waskow called The Tomb and the Well: Owning and Sitting:

Avraham began his bargaining by making clear that he is a ger v'toshav imakhem, a "sojourner-settler with you." He is not normally entitled to own land as a permanent holding for generations to come. He needs a special dispensation in order to acquire this property.

This is exactly the same formula with which YHWH explained in Leviticus 25: 23 that the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Israelites are "gerim v'toshavim...imadi" -- "sojourners-settlers with Me."

So Abraham was the model sojourner-settler, and his offspring were to learn that in this very land they are not to be owners but sojourners-settlers. Yet he acquired this particular piece of land, beyond reclaim. He did with this piece of land exactly what the God of Torah says must not be done -- and yet the Torah approves his acquisition.

How come? What is this "acquisition" for?

A grave. As if only the dead can "own" land; the living simply sojourn on God's land. Owning rigidifies what had been fluid. Death rigidifies what had been fluid.

The title of the essay plays on a more literal translation of toshav -- the word's root is the one that means both "dwell" and "sit." In contemporary English parlance, "sit" can mean Zen meditation; while that's surely not a connotation the text originally held, it's an interesting one nonetheless. What does it mean to be a sojourner who "sits" rather than a permanent resident of a land? Is it possible that the fundamental sign of our impermanence on this earth (the inevitability of death) is the one thing that gives us permanence?

Later in the piece, Reb Waskow talks about the custom which prevented the Israelites from setting foot in the holy Temple, which (according to traditional understanding) was built on the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac in the story immediately preceding Chayyei Sarah. "We taught ourselves that our most sacred place is one we do not 'own' and cannot even put our foot on," he writes, and then, "Our non-ownership was holy. This was a radical critique of idolatry. It teaches about space –- don't try to own it! -- what Shabbat teaches about time."

In this week's Torah portion, Abraham buys a plot of land, the cave of Machpelah, in which to bury his dead. As we reflect on what that story means to us today, I think Reb Waskow's reflections on the nature of ownership are worth reading. Find his essay here, and let me (or him) know what you think. And now the sun is setting over the mountains; Shabbat Shalom to you all!

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